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Chronological Archive • November 2002
November 30, 2002
Degrees: a barrier to advancement?

A few years ago I speculated how long it would be until a university degree was a positive handicap when it came to getting a job. It would seem reading this letter from a solicitor in the Telegraph that that day is upon us. The key line is this:

Lack of practical experience means that many graduates would have done better to have left academic life earlier and attained the background which would make them a more attractive prospect to an employer with vacancies (and thereby future opportunities) to fill. The apparent self-esteem and expectations of some candidates render them unemployable.
It was only a matter of time.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 03:22 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[9] [0]
November 29, 2002
Learning to be Japanese (it's very hard)

Patrick Crozier has just finished giving a talk about Japan, based on his recent visit there, and out of the conversation afterwards emerged a point about Japanese society that will seem very obvious to all those who have been aware of it for many years, but which only got to me tonight, for the first time.

The Japanese alphabet is diabolically complicated. In fact, if I heard an exchange between Patrick and David Carr correctly, there are three Japanese alphabets, for three different purposes which I didn't quite catch. And each alphabet contains characters beyond numbering. Something like eight thousand.

The upshot of which is that it takes about two decades of unremitting toil to become, in a basic sense, Japanese. What our cleverer or luckier or smarter pupils have done by the age of about nine, takes them twice as long and more. You think it's hard for Westerners to "penetrate" Japanese society? Well yes, it is. But so too, and for the same sort of reasons, is it hard for the Japanese themselves to get to the centre of it.

Suddenly the "conformity" and "collectivism" and "authoritarianism" of Japan makes more sense. Becoming Japanese is, in a basic sense, climbing an endless ladder of cultural complexity. Becoming British or French or Spanish or American, by comparison, is about as hard as passing your driving test. And once you're in, you're in, and everyone's equal.

I'm sure the internet is pulsating with places where all this is much more thoroughly gone into. But I only really got this notion tonight, and I have no links to offer whatsoever, except to Patrick's own Transport Blog, where, if you dig in the archives you'll find pictures of Japanese trains, and such like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
Category: Literacy
[4] [0]
November 28, 2002
Schools versus learning

Joanne Jacobs says she's not sure about it, but reckons it's "worth a read". I'm sure Joanne won't be amazed to learn that I think that this Colby Cosh piece is a lot better than that. Sample quote:

See, this is the comical thing: tutors, as opposed to teachers, are doing more and more of the heavy lifting of a failing educational system. We've got these Kumon outfits, these Sylvan Learning Centres and the like, that are teaching math and reading to whole generations of children who are apparently coming out of public schools with no clue how to multiply five and seven. I notice, too, an increasingly lucrative trade in private tutoring for high-school students. I went to high school in the late '80s, and no one I knew was seeing a tutor or was employed as one. By 1995 I had friends who were basically earning a living on these kids. It's just standard now, it seems, for parents to send their kids to high school during the day and then pay someone to actually teach them, on the side.

What are "Sylvan Learning Centres" like? Anyone?

Cosh's further thoughts yesterday will to many be even more interesting, being his personal impressions of one home-schooled kid that ring very true to me, and confirm my impressions of such children whom I've met.

David Deutsch, pursuing his vision of what education should be in his logical, Oxfordish way, brings us to a similar conclusion:

So if we pursue the vision in a logical way, we come to the conclusion that the existing institution that comes closest to a non-coercive school is the entire town (or city, or society, or internet) that the children have access to, including their homes, and their friends' homes, and excluding only the existing schools.

This was the piece recommended by lars in his comment on this.

If I know Deutsch (which I only do from a few of his writings and by hearsay from various TCS people), he would forbid tutors that children themselves did not freely consent to. "Earning a living on these kids" wouldn't sound good to him.

Me, I'm just passing on what I read and like, even if a lot of it contradicts amongst itself quite a lot. When I try to teach these are the kind of prejudices I bring to it, if I can. If I ever have children, ditto.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:21 PM
Category: Home education
[5] [0]
November 27, 2002
Crown Princes facing reality

This guy has been making just a tad too many waves, and has therefore (and this is pure guesswork on my part) gone anonymous. Allen Reece's T(each) F(or) A(merica) bosses said that a daily blog with his daily complaints about his workplace, superiors, etc, was out of order and could he please cut it out. Fair enough.

US readers of this, and for that matter British readers, may be interested to know that the TFA idea is now being applied to Britain, specifically in London.

Last week I spoke at a meeting organised by the London School of Economics Hayek Society, on the subject of philanthropy, charity, "helping", etc., and it turned out that the meeting had been sponsored by something called TeachFirst. One of the other speakers was Jo Owen, who runs (helps run?) Teach First, and mentioned it a bit in his talk.

The idea, for those coming to all this new (as I was), is that hotshot, high-flying, alpha-male crown-prince management consultancy types fresh out of their hotshot universities take a couple of years out from telling their elders and betters how to run their businesses, and instead make themselves useful by doing a tour of duty in one of London's more dramatic secondary schools.

That "TFA" - the stuff that Allen Reece is doing - is the original US version of all this was a penny that only dropped later.

What I like is that here is an example of "helping" that actually might be helpful, at both ends of the deal. Corporate Crown Princes are notoriously more clever than they are wise in the ways of the real world, and two years in one of the more grotesque of our capital city's schools is ideal for giving them a crash course in reality. The British economy's Crown Princes used to earn their spurs running provincial factories or godforsaken storage depots. "Give it a go. We're probably going to shut it soon anyway. See what you can make of it." (And see what it makes of you, mate!) Trouble is, hotshot management consultancies don't now have such enterprises of their own for their promising young men to play with. So now they are having to borrow them.

Meanwhile the schools are crying out for alpha-males to teach their rowdy young bloods to learn, not just science and history and geography, but basic civility and good manners. Civilisation you might say. Nice but overwhelmed women, and non-alpha males in corduroy jackets with arm patches, don't do it. They need Men men, and they are definitely desperate enough to take the Men being offered by this scheme, young and green though they may be. The slightly bigger wages needed for these guys are pin-money for the sponsors, but a godsend for the schools not to have to worry about finding.

Nice. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this scheme.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:10 PM
Category: BloggingThe reality of teaching
[3] [0]
More about Kumon

I mentioned my brief involvement as a Kumon helper, in this post last week. Anyone wanting an outsider's view of the Kumon maths system that doesn't take too long to read, and which emphasises both its methods and effectiveness, and the wider implications of that achievement for education as a whole, may find this helpful. It's part of the Adam Smith Institute "Around the World in 80 Ideas" project, which looks very good, both literally in the sense of looking good on the computer screen and (it seems to me) being well organised and easy and intuitive to use, and in the sense of covering a wide variety of subjects briefly and interestingly.

Sample paragraph:

Kumon's individualist approach overcomes the problems of the collectivist grade system. It allows pupils to move at their own speed: slower pupils are able to move at a pace which does not intimidate and discourage them, and faster pupils are able to move at a pace which does not frustrate and bore them. The method thus allows people to acquire a skill to the maximum level, which their own abilities allow, which will be of enormous utility for the rest of their lives.

Oh, I didn't spot this until now, but I get a mention! Much more important fact: Kumon are now getting seriously stuck in to the teaching of basic literacy. This is a more complex task than maths, but they believe that the same basic methodology applies. I wouldn't dare to differ.

Yet more evidence of the continuing importance, global influence and general vitality of Japan and its culture. There's more to that place than electronic toys.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:07 PM
Category: Free market reformsMaths
[5] [0]
Japan doing well – Germany doing badly

Independent.co.uk has a story about a Unicef report on educational achievement or lack of it around the world. The report is full of the usual disturbing statistics, calculated to get the self-flagellating going and the public money flowing, just about everywhere. Lots of British children are bad at arithmetic. Britain is a haven of educational inequality, where quality of parent determines quality of education more than elsewhere, which confirms for me that British parents lead the world in cleaning up the educational mess caused by teachers, provided they know how. The Anglosphere in general is bad at literacy. (See my Libertarian Alliance Educational Notes No. 33 for a discussion of why that is.) So far so unsurprising.

For me, this paragraph contained the big surprise:

The survey showed South Korea and Japan at the top of almost every table. Germany, extolled until recently as one of the best examples of an efficient education system, came only 19th and had almost twice the British rate of failure in key academic skills.

Germany in educational trouble? That's a new one, to me anyway. Is that just all those East Germans polluting the successes of West Germans? If so, Unicef should have said, and I don't think it can be that.

Germany and Japan are often twinned for analytical purposes. Both started WW2 on the offensive. Both had the militarism smashed out of them, and achieved economic miracles during the peace that followed. Both societies have authoritarian family systems, and both love education. And now they are both said by many to be having similar problems.

But it isn't so. There's a fascinating article in Prospect (November 2002 - "Japan's Fake Funk" by Eamonn Fingleton), which says that Japan is doing fine thank you. This piece had me strongly persuaded, and I hope to have more to say about it over on Samizdata, Real Soon Now.

The truth is that Germany and Japan are now diverging. Japan is no more being laid low by its financial problems than the USA was crushed into insignificance by the Wall Street Crash and the depression that followed that disastrous episode. And Germany and Japan are now diverging educationally as well as economically, which suggest further economic divergence between them in the future.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: History
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November 26, 2002
Bush knowledge versus Gore knowledge

Joanne Jacobs links to one of those reports that says that Americans are, in her phrase, "Global Morons".

- Thirty-four percent of the young Americans knew that the island used on last season's "Survivor'' show was located in the South Pacific, but only 30 percent could locate the state of New Jersey on a map. The "Survivor'' show's location was the Marquesas Islands in the eastern South Pacific.

- When asked to find 10 specific states on a map of the United States, only California and Texas could be located by a large majority of those surveyed. Both states were correctly located by 89 percent of the participants. Only 51 percent could find New York, the nation's third most populous state.

- On a world map, Americans could find on average only seven of 16 countries in the quiz. Only 89 percent of the Americans surveyed could find their own country on the map.

- In the world map test, Swedes could find an average of 13 of the 16 countries. Germans and Italians were next, with an average of 12 each.

- Only 71 percent of the surveyed Americans could locate on the map the Pacific Ocean, the world's largest body of water. Worldwide, three in 10 of those surveyed could not correctly locate the Pacific Ocean.

- Although 81 percent of the surveyed Americans knew that the Middle East is the Earth's largest oil exporter, only 24 percent could find Saudi Arabia on the map.

But now hang on. Is this not exactly the kind of ignorance that successive Republican Presidents are constantly criticised for? (I'm thinking especially of Reagan and Bush Jnr.) And do not the exact kind of people who are now complaining about how, e.g., geography teaching in the USA has gone down the public toilet, to the point where X percent of Americans don't know where the Pacific Ocean is, then defend their Republican Presidents by pointing out that there's more to knowing your way around in the world than knowing where things are on maps? Are they not right? I think they are. I think that President Bush is at least as savvy in the ways of the world as any Euro-statesman just now.

And that US Army. It usually seems to arrive in the right places, when it matters.

Europeans have long complained about how "ignorant" the inhabitants of the USA are, ignorant that is to say, of such facts as the location of the Pacific Ocean, and indeed they are. But which countries have done better in recent decades, the European ones, or the USA? The top scoring countries in this international survey of geographical knowledge or lack of it were, see above: Sweden, Germany and Italy. Oh, I'm impressed. They've all been doing far better than the USA, haven't they?

If Bush Jnr. and Al Gore had had a geography test face-off during their fiercely close election battle, it's my clear understanding that Gore would have won, just as it's my clear understanding that a Gore post 9/11 foreign policy would probably have been a disaster, with President Gore knowing beforehand exactly where all the countries were on the map that he would never have learned how to handle properly.

Or is Bush really hyper-educated, and just pretending to be ignorant in order to suck up to all those genuinely ignorant Americans out there? I believe there was once a sketch on one of those Friday Night or Saturday Night or whenever Live comedy shows, in which a publicly bumbling aw-shucks President Reagan was shown in private as sporting a machine-gun ultra-high-IQ intellect with which he subjected even his most famously clever assistants to relentless private humiliations, but which was immediately switched off again as soon as he emerged back into the public arena.

I'm not saying that I'm in favour of ignorance, exactly. I'm just saying that, as Americans often say, book learnin' ain't ev'r'thin'.

You probably think I'm saying this just to be arkward. Well, yes, pretty much.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:30 PM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
Learning and foolishness

In the first sentence of this, I originally spelt "Straits Times" as "Straights Times", a blunder that was just waiting to happen. Rightly or wrongly, I corrected my original posting, in response to a comment (containing the inevitable joke) from John Ray, and added this as comment number two:

Thanks John. It's beginning to dawn on me that when you run an "education" blog, mistakes like that count twice.

I've taken the liberty of correcting the posting, which said "Straights", until now.

That's one of the downsides of comments. Had John's comment merely been an email, I could have corrected the mistake with minimum visibility.

I was always one of those "could do better if he tried harder" pupils. It's not that I can't spell; merely that, sometimes, I don't.

Maybe, as some bloggers do, I should leave up all errors however big or small. Once you correct "obvious" mistakes, who knows what other retrospective airbrushings you may later decide are excusable? Is this a slippery slope I've just stepped onto? Have I entered the realm of education blog cheating?

Comments anyone?

In general, I am finding the handling of comments tricky. Where, now, does anyone put a comment on the above? As a comment on this, or under where my reply-comment quoted above was first put? What if there are now further comments in both places?

Learning is often hard to distinguish from making a fool of oneself, and then making a further fool of oneself in response to the original foolishness when it is pointed out. Sympathetic teachers are those who have recent experience of themselves doing some learning, that is to say, foolishness. Some teachers should be sympathetic/foolish teachers, but not all.

I started this blogging business because I felt that I wasn't learning enough from the other things I was doing, and it's working. Thanks to blogging, Brian's education is in rapid motion again, whereas before blogging it was nearly immobile. Blogging has placed me back in the zone of moderate discomfort, where we all belong for as long as we are alive.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:23 AM
Category: Brian's education
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Ethnic mathematics?

Last Wednesday Giants & Dwarfs, who describe themselves as "A Blog on Academia and "Culture" (thanks for the email introducing yourselves gentlemen), had this tantalising report, tantalising because the link embedded in it went to something entirely different:

THE NEXT STEP into madness. The University of Hawaii at Hilo has been awarded a $2.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation, which will be used in part to teach "ethnomathematics" (everyone knows 1+1 doesn't equal 2 if you're of Hawaiian-American extraction).

Anyone know anything about this? It may not be as mad as G&D make it sound, but it does indeed sound decidedly unmathematical. I have never forgotten being told by the Professor of Maths at Essex University several decades ago that mathematics is the study of what everyone is compelled to agree about, regardless of race, colour or creed. And it's surely true that maths is that, even if that definition might be said to include some other things besides. Maths is a huge and expanding clutch of statements of the form "if this is true and this is true then it must follow that this also is true". If you're a Martian, never mind a Hawaiian, you may not get this or that bit of maths, but if the mathematicians have done their stuff right, you can't deny it. It says something very revealing about maths that when humans are trying to strike up relationships with aliens, by including messages in those rockets they fire off into the wild black yonder, they always include mathematical messages.

If all that "ethnomathematics" says is that the language in which the universally true statements of mathematics are expressed may be somewhat culture bound, then fine. But I suspect it of saying something more, something untrue. Comments are always welcome (and thanks very much for all the comments on postings here so far) but on this matter especially so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:53 AM
Category: Maths
[4] [0]
November 25, 2002
Singapore planning

So once again I type "Education" into google, and hit number one is this, from the Straits Times:

Education for education's sake best for S'pore

I REFER to the letter, 'Education system has evolved with nation's needs' (ST, Nov 22), by Ministry of Education director of planning Tang Tuck Weng.

He said that what The Straits Times has called 'Singapore's famously rigid education system' is seen differently by objective external observers. He then quoted a statistical ranking, that placed Singapore in fourth place in its ability to meet the needs of a competitive economy, and said that far from being rigid, our education system has responded to changes in the needs of the nation and the economy.

What's good or bad about Singapore's education system?

But objective observers are less likely to spot the less-obvious faults of the system than someone like me who has gone through the system and moved on to study in America.

Mr Tang's answer demonstrates the key problem with the education system in Singapore.

The rigidity of the education system stems from the fact that it is focused not on educating people, but on meeting the needs of the economy.

His use of the statistic simply substantiates my belief that the Education Ministry sees its main role as a producer of manpower for Singapore's economy.

It is still based on the old-style idea of centralised planning, with a ministry taking in all data and making a decision as to what sort of education is necessary for our children, with the belief that this will fit into the kind of economy we have in mind.

This is fine if the Education Ministry and the Government make no mistakes.

But …

Teh Peijing then goes on to describe a recent Singapore government imposed disaster concerning the manufacture of Singaporean engineers:

… I remember that not too long ago the Government was rather vocal in encouraging people to become engineers.

Which turned a lot of his friends into unemployed engineers. Now, says he, he notes a similar obsession with bio-engineering.

He votes instead for what he calls "all-round education":

I believe that the Ministry of Education should focus on educating Singaporeans, for the sake of educating Singaporeans.

I believe that an education system focused entirely on giving Singaporeans the best all-round education, without considering the short-term needs of the economy, might be better for Singapore in the long run.

What we need is not a workforce that is deemed necessary by economic planners, but a workforce that is creative, dynamic, independent, rounded, passionate and entrepreneurial. I think such a workforce has a higher chance of survival in an increasingly fluid global economic situation.

Which sounds okay, but what exactly does it mean? What if the result is a plague of American-educated humanities academics who could no more turn out "entrepreneurial" Singaporeans than they could train bio-engineers?

For it is at this point that Mr Teh (I'm hoping that this is the correct way to address the gentleman) reveals that he too believes in the power of government to prophecy the future:

All in all, while the ministry has done an admirable job so far, we ought not to be complacent. Would it not be better to have an education system that pre-empts, rather than evolves in response to, changes?

To me, actually, it sounds worse. "Pre-empts" changes?

What I think we have here is an argument between one semi-deluded, my guess-is-better-than-yours centralist and another. Although Mr Teh talks much sense when he criticises his rival, I wonder which is actually better for Singapore, unemployed bio-engineers or unemployed "all-round education" persons?

Could it be that what Mr Teh really wants is a generation of ("passionate") political trouble-makers? Because that's what he would probably get. It might be no bad thing.

"Might" being the important word there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 PM
Category: Politics
[3] [0]
November 23, 2002
Children - who is ultimately responsible?

If you are a specialist blogger, you rely heavily on the other specialist bloggers doing your specialism, until such time as you get the hang of it, and I find myself relying on Daryl Cobranchi, a lot. Yesterday, for example, Daryl linked to a column at SchoolReformers.com which is well worth a look.

Who owns children? The government or their parents? I know I know, the children own the children. But until such time as the children can look after themselves, who is ultimately responsible for looking after them in the meantime? Who makes the final decisions? Parents or government? Here are David W. Kirkpatrick's first two paragraphs:

If you ask parents to whom their children belong, or who should be responsible for them, once they get over the shock of such a question most would point to themselves. They might find it hard to believe that anyone would maintain the contrary.

But a contrary view has a long history, going back to ancient Sparta. In that Greek city-state, when boys became seven years old they were taken from their families, placed in state-run boarding schools and trained to meet the needs of this military society. That would be extreme today but the essential belief that the young belong to the state has never died.

The history lesson that follows is an American history lesson, but America is an interesting place. Yesterday, someone, somewhere in the blogosphere, or maybe somewhere in among all those pre-blogosphere emails I still get, was asking about the whole idea of the "nationalisation of children". This would be a good place to look further.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: HistoryPolitics
[4] [0]
November 22, 2002
See you on Monday – sooner maybe

Just to remind you all as you pour through in your millions, the daily drip of postings may be interrupted over the weekend, by the fact that it's the weekend. As stated earlier in the week, I'm now committing myself only to putting up stuff Monday to Friday. What I'll do at the weekend is anyone's guess, and I personally have no idea how I'll feel. So see you definitely on Monday. Maybe sooner. But maybe not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:39 PM
Category: This Blog
[0] [0]
Primitive educational robots

There was a TV advert this evening for "educational toys" made by something called VTech. They have a website, inevitably. Lars, you want evidence of how lame computers for kids are? Look no further. I'm sure you'll be deeply unimpressed.

This adventure-based learning system can be extended with the range of Plug ’n’ Play Cartridges which can be purchased separately to adapt the Voyager Adventure System to a variety of skill levels as the child develops. Journey through interactive Boggle Chase, Photo Adventure (included), Alphaberts Time Travel Adventure, Ocean Adventure and Mystery Mansion Adventure, each guiding children aged 4-5 and 6-7 through a variety of educational activities for age appropriate learning.

The Voyager Adventure System is available Summer 2002 priced around £49.99 with additional cartridges retailing separately for around £19.99 each.

I included that last paragraph because what hit me was the amount of money that parents are willing to spend on this kind of stuff. I'm not a parent of any sort, and so comments from parents who have actually purchased this stuff would be especially welcome, pro or anti. Personally, just looking at it all, and thinking of all the bedrooms and playrooms of friends and relatives I've seen full of this kind of stuff just piled up in cupboards or lying around on the floor, I'm not a believer. But if parents will keep a business like this in business, think how much more they would be willing to part with if these kind of toys actually did seduce their kids into being cleverer. (If these did, we would surely have heard.) £54.99, £24.99, £49.99, "additional cartridges" for £19.99. If this is what parents will pay for what are, frankly, little more than educational lottery tickets, … Although, as I say, expert knowledge of these gizmos from parents who have watched them in action (or inaction) would obviously be very helpful.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 PM
Category: Technology
[1] [0]
The un-mis-informing of Ali

I promised the other day that by way of a change I would soon be mentioning (and I promised it rather sooner than now – apologies) some actual teaching that I'd done. Well, the most recent teaching I did was when I was helping my friend Mariana run something called a Kumon Centre, which is a franchised after-school maths club, managed locally but in accordance with a centrally imposed set of guidelines first developed and still presided over in Japan. I wrote a piece for the Libertarian Alliance about this experience, but the events I am about to write about happened after that piece had been published.

Regular school maths usually seems to involve the children working through only a few rather hard problems. Kumon makes them do many more much easier ones. Instead of hoping that they get, say, about half to two thirds of their stuff right, Kumon says they must get nearly everything right. At the heart of the Kumon method is the difference between a child painfully working out that seven plus six equals, er, thirteen? (anxious glance at face of teacher), and knowing with real certainty that seven plus six equals thirteen, with no doubts or hesitations. The usual educational emphasis is on "understanding". The Kumon literature talks of "mastery".

Each child does a clutch of sums selected for him or her personally (there is no everyone-in-the-class-does-the-same-stuff rule) each day, which are supposed to take about twenty minutes to complete. In schools, teachers do the teaching. With Kumon, the system does the teaching. All we did was mark the work the children had done, and then Mariana would follow the rules of the system to set them their next lot of sums.

It worked. Almost all children made steady progress, and in some cases - and in more than just maths by the way – progress was truly astonishing. Kumon sometimes seemed to administer nothing less than a psychological transformation.

But there was one boy for whom Kumon did not seem to be working its magic. Ali was the boy's name, and he seemed to be in such serious trouble that Kumon seemed beside the point. When he did sums they were all over the place. Answers were totally wrong, and figures written the wrong way round. He could hold a pencil and write, but what he wrote was crazy. We seriously doubted if there was anything we could do, and we were ready to give up right there. He would make repeated mistakes, both of calculation and in the way he wrote numbers, and we even started to believe that he might be "dyslexic", or even brain damaged. Also, Ali seemed to be an extremely arrogant little boy. He had a way of lowering his eyelids and raising his head that made him look as if he thought the world to be populated entirely by fools.

At which point I got very, very lucky. I said, let me have a try with him. I decided to do some teaching.

As I say, with Kumon, you're not supposed to teach. You simply shove the stuff in front of them and they do it with the minimum of guidance, and at the end you tell them how they've done, and they learn. The system teaches them, not us. But that wasn't going to work with Ali.

I sat Ali down in front of a clutch of Kumon sums and sat myself down right next to him. I got him to do each one exactly right, telling him exactly what to do and getting him to correct all errors immediately, as soon as he made them, and telling him exactly what to do whenever he didn't know.

I separated the task he faced into a succession of tiny steps and got him to do each step right before proceeding to the next. You start by writing your name there. No, there. What's your name? Ali. Good. Can you spell that? Good. Please write Ali there. Good. Now: what does this say? I point at a two. Two. Good. And what does that say? I point at a one. One. Good. What about that? I point at the plus in between the two and the one. No? That says plus. That means you are adding two to one. What does this say? Don't know? That says equals. That means what does two and one come to. What's it the same as? What is two plus one, two and one, two added to one? So. What's two and one? Don't know? It's three. Do you know how to write three? You do. Good. Please write three there, which is where the answer is supposed to go. Excellent.

And so on. I never made him guess more than once, and I was unfailingly polite. I always said please before asking him to do anything, and I never raised my voice. I never, that is to say, confused Ali being ignorant with Ali being stupid. I did nothing that would be unfamiliar to an averagely capable aerobics instructor working with a arthritic old-age pensioner, but for some reason this sort of thing, when needed by a child, is not always supplied, even in something as widely known as simple arithmetic.

Aside from not knowing the answers, Ali's biggest problem was writing the numbers the correct way around. He would routinely write mirror reflections of them instead. Not all the time, just rather a lot. (This was what had prompted the dyslexia diagnosis.)

When Ali did this - getting, say, the answer right but writing it mirrored - I would say well done, you got the answer right. The answer is five, and that's what you wrote. Well done. However, you wrote the five the wrong way round. Please rub out the five you did, and rewrite it the correct way round. Good.

As I say, you aren't supposed to do this in Kumon. If all the children were to get twenty minutes of solid attention, the way I was attending to Ali, the place would have stopped being the learning factory for everyboy and everygirl that it's supposed to be and would have reverted to being a few tutors helping a few rich kids. But I didn't care.

And the reason that I didn't care was that it worked. After about three sessions along these lines, Ali reached his personal plateau of arithmetical excellence (a few sums wrong but almost all of them right), just like any other Kumon kid.

There was nothing wrong with Ali's brain. Nothing whatsoever. He wasn't stupid, far from it. He had merely been misinformed.

Nor, in my opinion and in my brief experience, and despite my initial prejudice along exactly such lines, was he arrogant. My guess was there was something a bit wrong with his eyesight, and he did the lowered eyelids and raised head thing to correct it.

I don't know for sure how or why Ali had been misinformed and anyway, the cause of the problem wasn't important; what mattered was that the problem was being dealt with. My guess is that (a) his mother may not have been that sure about doing or writing out arithmetic and had consequently not been helping him with it, the way most mothers help most kids with easy sums. Confusions created at school were not cleared up at home. (The more I contemplate state education, the more important remedial home teaching seems to me to be.)

So how had Ali's school created these confusions? I surmise that at his school Ali had not had all his errors corrected, only some of them. Maybe, what with all the other kids to be worrying about, they just couldn't or didn't bother to find the time.

Maybe Ali's teachers had become gripped by the fallacy that ignorance is stupidity and that therefore to correct someone's mistakes - all of someone's mistakes, all of someone's numerous mistakes - is to launch an all-engulfing personal attack on them. (Better to boost the little kiddy's confidence and self-esteem by telling him he's doing better than he is.)

Maybe, what with Ali looking down his nose at everybody, they judged him to be difficult, and feared that if they told him the full story of how badly he was doing he'd make a scene. (That Ali and his family were Muslims might also have made them fear some kind of cross-cultural battle.)

Whatever the exact reasons, Ali had been getting wrong information. Here, two plus one was three, but here, where he'd put two plus one was two, no-one had objected. So presumably that was correct also. Numbers written both the right way round and the wrong way round were left unmolested, so presumably both answers were okay. Except that sometimes the wrong answers weren't okay.

Actually, I believe that Ali was very intelligent, and that had he been less intelligent he would have been less confused. He was getting a mass of bad information and, poor fellow, he was taking it all in, the way a less clever boy might not have.

As I say, Ali wasn't arrogant at all, but if he had thought arithmetic too silly and arbitrary and irrational to be worthy of his sustained attention, who could have blamed him?

I believe I did Ali some big favours, and in a very short time. With luck I convinced him that arithmetic could, if explained properly, make perfect sense and that he could make perfect sense of it. I told his parents that there was nothing – nothing whatsoever - wrong with his brain, only the information that had previously been fed into it, and with any luck they believed me. If Ali's learning environment later reverted to confusion then presumably Ali went back to being confused, but with more luck, both Ali and his parents will then blame society rather than Ali, and seek out non-confusion.

I could go on at even greater length, and in an earlier draft containing this (for another Libertarian Alliance Educational Note) I did. There are plenty of "lessons" here, I think. But this is blogging, and I'll leave this story to speak for itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:51 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerMaths
[4] [0]
November 21, 2002
Old Education versus the New Media

This from John Ray:

I did a post on October 24th in which I noted the great rise in average IQ that has happened in the last 100 years. I attributed it in part to the greater stimulation young brains now receive from modern entertainment media -- television and computer games in particular. Both have of course long been treated as evils by many of our professionally wise people -- who would keep kids away from both if they could.

I am pleased to see therefore that a new research report has just come out confirming what I said. Far from holding kids back, TV and computer games greatly improve their intelligence. The killjoys still mutter and grumble of course but I am happy to say that my very bright and creative son was always allowed to play as many computer games as he liked.

I've been putting somewhat schizophrenic-seeming stuff here about how children should (a) not be coerced into attending school by governments, or for that matter by their parents, but (b) not be watching TV all the time, on account it stunts their education.

Allow me to (thesise antithesise) synthesise. I do think that TV, and now computers, have seriously deranged "education", if by education you mean the old command-and-control Prussian system. TV does this to the old system of education precisely because it supplies an alternative and in many ways better – certainly more amusing and less boring – education. (Lars, commenting on this, took me to task for not getting this, but I do, I do.)

The long term answer is: freedom for children, just as the long term answer has already been freedom for non-aristocrats, freedom for non-whites, freedom for non-men. Like Lars says, children should be allowed to pursue their own interests, and that way they'll contrive a first-rate education for themselves, integrating the old technology with the new.

My problem is this. If the only choice facing a child is (a) a well-administered "Prussian" education, kind but firm, which provides a not-too-bad education, or (b) a deranged and chaotic and/or hysterically fascist version of the same, then (a) sounds better to me than (b). And for most children now, those are the choices. Freedom for children, for most children, given the parents they now have, is not a plausible next step; it's parallel universe stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:06 AM
Category: Technology
[3] [0]
November 20, 2002
Another good home-schooling blog

I mentioned the acronym HSLDA in my recent home-schooling posting on Samizdata. This stands for Home School Legal Defense Association, and this looks like a good blog to learn more about what it does, and about home-schooling generally.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Internet could be the difference between home-schooling becoming an ever bigger and more significant movement, and being wiped out by its implacable state-education-equals-education enemies.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:25 AM
Category: Home education
[2] [0]
BEdBlog is good for Samizdata

Just to say, I've recently done a couple of education-related postings for Samizdata, about private education in Saudi Arabia, and about a home-schooling ruckus in Illinois, the latter story having stirred up a few comments, all of them supportive of the home-schoolers.

Partly, I thought that these were good wider-interest stories that Samizdata readers would appreciate. And partly, I wanted to demonstrate to the world in general, and to Samizdata's Perry de Havilland in particular, that BEdBlog isn't going to hurt my capacity to go on contributing usefully to Samizdata.

If anything, I believe that the reverse will be the case. Neither of the above two stories would have got to me if I hadn't been roaming around looking for stuff for BEdBlog. And I also believe that some stories will be "researched" by me here, as it were, with several BEdBlog postings resulting from my efforts to keep me interested, and then when I have the story clearly in focus, I can sum it all up on Samizdata, linking back to here of course. That, for example, is what may well happen with this "No Child Left Behind" stuff that I've already written about a couple of times (here and here), and maybe also the UNESCO stuff (ditto and ditto).

It's like the relationship between the specialist press and the big national daily newspapers, in the dead-tree media. I want to contribute to Samizdata, and help it to get ever better and ever more widely read. I do not want to abuse and maybe even damage that amazing Samizdata hit rate (now running at around 1,500 per day) by posting an excess (for Samizdata) of thinking aloud - or just more specialised - education stuff, such as you BEdBlog readers are going to have to self-select to like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:49 AM
Category: This Blog
[0] [0]
November 19, 2002
The British educational Raj

Quoting yourself is about as crass and uncool as it is possible to get when blogging, but I can't put my point now better than I put it yesterday morning:

Actually, I don't think that the changes needed can come from the official system at all. I think it goes to the state of mind of the consumer/victims of it all. Do these people – parents and children (especially children) - decide that they're consumers, or that they're victims? That's what matters.

Yes, that is what matters, to me anyway, and it explains something that has been puzzling me.

Whenever, during the last few days, I needed (like a school teacher bluffing together tomorrow morning's lesson late the night before) to say something in a hurry about "education", I would trawl through google and through a few of the other edu-blogs, and above all through the regular electronic news services, looking for current "education stories". And up would come university funding rows, and national bullying guidelines, and national teachers' prizes, and national this and national that, and I would struggle to stay interested.

The UNESCO stuff gets my active attention, because if that gets going it will make the education of humans on this planet an order of magnitude worse (certainly a hell of a lot more expensive) even than it is already. But the national stuff, or at any rate the British national stuff? I mostly can't make myself care about it.

I think I now know why. Like the British national public sector in general, the British educational national public sector has had the stuffing knocked out of it over the years. It has lost its Will to Power. It is merely going through the motions, not because it believes in going through those motions, merely because it can't think what else to do. The British public sector has entered its decadent phase, the redoubling-your-efforts-when-you've-forgotten-your-aim phase.

Accordingly, if faced with a fierce conviction that there is a far different and far better way to do things educational, the British national public sector will retreat in confusion.

At present there exists no national counter-conviction of this sort. The general public of Britain are just as much a part of this decadent phase as any politician or education bureaucrat. The public also can mostly only think of "them" spending more money and enacting yet more rules and regulations and installing yet more committees and safeguards and guidelines and statutory obligations. And, it claps when prizes are awarded to any teacher seems to have retained the ability and willingness to keep on navigating through this ever-accumulating mess and is managing still to get some real teaching done.

The situation reminds me of a remark attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, or at any rate said by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the movie of that name, to the effect that it is "simply impossible for millions of Indians to be ruled a few thousand Englishmen unless the millions of Indians allow themselves" so to be ruled. Something like that.

That's how I feel about education. Some power structures are strong, viciously imposed, sure of themselves, and those ones have to be clandestinely criticised, and in due course attacked by force of arms and meanwhile resisted by force of arms, if they are ever to be destroyed. Gandhian pacifism doesn't work against a regime which, unlike the British Raj, shoots demonstrators dead, in whatever numbers the demonstrators choose to present themselves.

But the British education monster is not now like that. British education is not Nazi Germany, however much its libertarian critics are sometimes tempted by its routine horrors to shout out that it is. If you are, say, a fourteen year old English boy, and you have a clear idea of what next you want to do with your life, then the changes are that you can now do it. Civil disobedience - in the form of the refusal to do what they (which may even include your own parents) want, and the determination to do what you want – is really quite likely to work, provided you give serious thought to the tactics you are using, targetting your nastiness with care and also using lots of politeness and incidental concessions on issues that don't matter to you, in short provided that your disobedience really is civil.

Stubborn parents, full to the brim with Will to Power, would, I admit, be a serious problem. But most parents, in Britain now, aren't like that either. They too will defer to a strongly held, rationally argued plan.

All of which means that the state of mind of the victims is what matters. The latest bumblings of the compulsory-by-default system just don't matter nearly so much.

Expect more on this.

My next posting will be a down-to-earth piece about some actual teaching that I have actually done. Promise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:05 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
November 18, 2002
The Glory of Modern Education

Frederick Crews, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley: "The essays that the graduating BAs would submit with their applications were often brilliant. After five or six years of Ph.D. work, the same people would write incomprehensible crap. Where did they learn it? They learned it from us."

Link via Newmark's Door

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 08:49 PM
Category: Higher education
[0] [0]
Good prison versus bad liberation?

As a would-be radical child liberationist, postings like this one by Joanne Jacobs pull me apart like chewing gum being stretched out by a chewing gum chewer. Am I appalled at what my friend Alice would denounce as the "manipulation" of it all, or am I impressed at the sheer drive and efficiency of the stuff that Joanne is holding up for our admiration? (It's the usual stuff. High expectations. High academic standards. Frequent tests. Usually inept minorities making rapid progress. The kids also being "stretched".)

Both, in truth. I think that the arguments for freedom for adults do apply to children, even though children are indeed different. (Adults are also different, etc. etc.) But although I wouldn't want to be one of these efficient prison officer educators myself, I am impressed at how the best of these people go about their business. If you are going to be sent to prison for the crime of being young, it's probably better to be imprisoned in world that prepares you somewhat for life after your stretch inside than to be imprisoned in a place that prepares you to do nothing except whine and complain that you aren't being looked after and entertained properly by the big bad mysterious world that your plasticene games and dance and drama classes and yoof culture rebellions have so completely not prepared you for. I guess to the hardcore child liberationists, I must sound like a "progressive" Southern plantation owner, agonising about whether the slaves can handle freedom.

And here's another concession to the lock-em-up and smarten-em-up school of schoolers. Chucking the kids out into the streets as the streets now are wouldn't be ideal either, now would it? As so often, getting from here to there means choosing your next few steps with care.

Actually, I don't think that the changes needed can come from the official system at all. I think it goes to the state of mind of the consumer/victims of it all. Do these people – parents and children (especially children) - decide that they're consumers, or that they're victims? That's what matters. Expect a lot more from me about this last bit.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:26 AM
Category: Compulsion
[1] [0]
The coming age of the nice teacher robots

Over at the blog that got me started, Samizdata, there's a short posting (with a picture) by Perry de Havilland, about a high tech robot dragon, which performs "security" services. One of the commenters asked if this scary beast would eat her AIBO puppy.

I mention the AIBO because, unlike the scary dragon, the AIBO is designed to make friends with its human owners, and especially with children.

Ever since I first heard about the AIBO I was convinced that I was witnessing history fluttering its wings, and in particular the history of education.

I have a prejudice, which researching education issues for this blog is so far only confirming, that computers are changing education not by "changing education" but by changing just about everything in the world except education.

Children are allowed to muck about with computers in their class-rooms, but little now seems to be taught that couldn't have been taught, and probably better, with old-fashioned chalk-and-talk methods, such as they still use in high-powered university departments to explain the complexities of such things as nuclear physics. When children get home, they play games on computers. Lucky children, especially home-schooled children, often get to surf the Internet, and as that gets cheaper, many more will surely do this. But "education" – in the sense of the stuff now done by and in schools - shows little sign of being replaced by computers of anything resembling the sort we are now familiar with.

But I think that when historical hindsight eventually gets applied to now, historians may decide that the moment when these robots showed up – i.e. now - was the moment when all that started to change.

Children love these robots. Okay, not the dragon, but definitely the AIBO dog. And something you love is something you just might be willing to learn from. I can imagine a robot teaching a foreign language to a kid in a way that no current computer could begin to do, simply because the kid likes it, and trusts it, and wants to talk with it, and might be willing to experiment with other languages just for the fun of it. And rich parents will see that this kind of thing works, and will pay the bills for it. Soon, super-professor robots will be available for fifty quid at Dixons.

I know what a lot of people will say once this prospect becomes plainly visible. Spooky! Dangerous! Maybe even: pass some laws against these beasts now!!

Personally I find this prospect extraordinarily interesting, and not at all unapealing. Scary, yes, because there'll surely be big mistakes and misjudgements. But imagine if this kind of thing could be got approximately right. I believe that it will happen. For remember, however difficult it may be for the technies to devise such things, it only needs one bunch of them to crack it for the thing to happen. (Think of all the other "impossible" things that computers have done, and can now do for petty cash.)

The implications for human history are beyond calculation. One obvious one is that for the first time in many generations, we can anticipate, sooner or later, a world in which children will be unambiguously cleverer and better educated than their parents, so palpably that everyone - the children, the parents, everyone - will know it.

TV, when it first hit, created the first dumbed-down generation. All right, not dumbed down, exactly. This generation was – how can I put it politely? – differently knowledgeable. The baby boomers are the people I'm talking about, and they (we) know rock and roll, but not the Roman Empire. And the children of the baby boomers have became even more, er, differently knowledgeable. But the technological successors of the same TVs that taught us to forget about our education will, when the super-intelligent robot teacher pets finally arrive, create a similar cultural discontinuity, but in something resembling the opposite direction.

Blah blah blah. If this was an "essay", I'd waffle on for five more pages. Thank heavens for blogs. All hail the shortened attention span. I don't see that changing back again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:34 AM
Category: Technology
[1] [0]
November 17, 2002
From now on BEdBlog may not show up at the weekend

You've spotted the pattern by now. Something (anything - even something as feeble as this) every day. But I've decided to relax on that rule, and make BEdBlog activity definite only on a Monday-to-Friday basis. I may post things at the weekend, but I may not. But I will stick to the every-week-day-in-the-week-rule, even if it involves something desperate like paying Patrick to put some stuff here (while I'm off in Bali taking advantage of the cheap hotels over there just now).

So, maybe next weekend, my uninterrupted posting record is going to snap. Just thought I'd let you know, so that, if nothing materialises next Saturday, say, you don't jump to the conclusion that BEdBlog is a busted flush (whatever that is but it sounds very bad to me). I will remind you all again about this rule next Friday.

Class dismissed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:02 PM
Category: This Blog
[0] [0]
November 16, 2002
Score one hit for BEdBlog

Buried in among all this from here a week or two ago is me complaining, from a position of sublime Brit-based ignorance about something called the "No Child Left Behind" campaign or initiative or Presidential (Bush jnr. in this case) Directive or program or whatever they call it over there. I say it's politics and I say the hell with it, was my line, going on nothing but the fact that it definitely is politics.

Well now here's someone who sounds as if he actually knows about it, Michael Lopez of Highered Intelligence (expect a properly organised link Real Soon Now blah blah blah), complaining a lot more loudly than me about this thing, which he calls the "No Child Left Behind So Let's All Stay In Place" Act - which tells you something more right away, yes?

Please read what Lopez says, but if you absolutely insist on only taking my word for it, at least read this quote that Lopez got from here:

Perverse incentives work. A law where the consequences mean that Arkansas has zero failing schools and Michigan has 1,500 is bound to have unintended consequences--every state strives to be Arkansas.

Says Lopez:

That is a very. . . poetic way of putting it.

Say I: That's politics. The difference is that when you or I or for that matter Michael Lopez start doing something idiotic, we can stop as soon as we realise that it's idiotic, say sorry, and switch to something non-idiotic in the space of about two days - maybe a couple of weeks if we're in charge of something complicated. But This Thing is now a law. To change a USA version of one of those you either have to wait about four years minimum, or else get the incumbent President of the United States to say very loudly: "I am an idiot." Good luck.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:42 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
Quote Unquote

"There are many things the government can't do, many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people."
- Lord Acton, quoted by Gary M. Galles in a piece about Acton for the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:50 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
Baton Rouge-grad

Here's something to cheer up our weekend, from Apple a Day: The Daily Weblog of a first-year schoolteacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This is one of the entries from last Saturday (Nov 9):

Idiocy of the Week

I can't control whether heat or air conditioning comes out of the vents in my classroom (something made readily apparent as I baked last Thursday). That decision isn't made by me, or my principal, or the superintendent, or even anyone in the state of Louisiana. The decision as to whether my kids get air hot or cold is apparently made by someone at a company in Atlanta, Georgia, 525 miles away. (And let me assure you, there aren't a series of thermometers with ethernet connections at my school sending up to date classroom temperature information to the Peach State) Does this seem a little Soviet to anyone else? Would it be too much to give teachers control over a fricking thermostat?

Something tells me you haven't read the word "Soviet" on BEdBlog for the last time, and I don't mean only in connection with the old Soviet Union.

The most Soviet stuff I've heard recently has concerned the lying that afflicts the British state education system about how well it is doing. The statistics of British educational "achievement" are sounding more and more like Soviet steel production figures, and I'm sure it's just the same elsewhere. This used to be called "cheating", and only cheating pupils who were not old enough to know any better did it. If caught they were severely punished. Now cheating afflicts all levels of the British state system, most definitely including the politicians at the top, who routinely lie about exam results, and pressurise those lower down to do likewise. Just recently the disease has spread to include lying about how well the private sector in British education has been doing, only in this case the lies state that they have been doing less well than they have.

But back to the joys of downtown Baton Rouge. Have a read of this, from Wed Nov 6th:

I call the experienced teachers veterans. People use the metaphor of the 'war zone' often when describing inner city schools. I don't think that it's simply metaphor. When I showed up in Baton Rouge for TFA preinduction, a group of us cornered a second-year, and asked him to describe his first year of teaching. He paused, reflected for a moment, and then said, "Well -- I guess it's sort of like going to 'Nam." We all laughed ...then. But as my time here lengthens the parallels become more striking. The Veterans here in the schools, just like soldiers, have had long experience of being treated like mushrooms (i.e. kept in the dark and fed sh*t) by the folks above them. As a result, they rely primarily on each other for support. Here at my school, there's even a tendency to refer to each other by last name only, (making me "Reece," something I hadn't been called since I played ice hockey.) In both situations, what you find is the gallows humor and grim camaraderie of perpetually unpleasant circumstances. I should probably elaborate on all this, but for now I'll just leave it at that.

As will I. No matter what exactly you mean by "education", it shouldn't have to be like this. But I guess that's the Draft for you.

Although, I might not have minded if I'd been taught how to write by this man.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:26 AM
Category: The reality of teaching
[1] [0]
November 15, 2002
Connections

Thanks very much for a link, and for a quote from here and a supporting comment, to Daryl Cobranchi of Homeschool and Other Educ. Stuff, which is definitely going to be a regular read for me. (The "and" is supposed to be a squiggle but Samizdata Blogczar Perry de Havilland says that can cause trouble. I know. You learn something new every day.) Daryl, expect more references from here to you. And thanks for commenting on something else here, and thereby letting me know about this.

And apparently I have Steven Gallagher (who thinks and therefore can't sleep) to thank also. So thanks also to Steven.

Patrick (he's the BEdBlog caretaker), please can you put Homeschool etc. on the "Education friendly blogs" list? The link to the sleepless thinker will have to wait until the big links sort-out that I'll be doing Real Soon Now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:33 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
Geography – environmentalism - compulsion

Finally, I'm picking up the threads of this "Education Blog" thing, and have an honest-to-god link from this guy (Steven Chapman) to this guy (Alex Standish of Spiked) to give you. Standish writes about how the environmentalist agenda has taken over the teaching of geography. New Zealand educated (which I didn't know until now) Chapman comments. Make of it what you will.

I'm as and maybe even more inclined to think that one bunch of old-school propagandists is being pushed aside by the next lot. If you set up a machine for compulsory "teaching", even if it is for compulsorily teaching children to think for themselves, don't be amazed if even nastier zombies steal it and do some more serious damage with it. Not sure. Discuss.

One thing I'm a bit more sure of is that turning the clock back is a hell of a lot harder than defending the existing settings, and that the only way to chase out environmental propagandising may be to banish propagandising of any kind. Then, if you want old fashioned geography like-we-used-to-have-in-the-good-old-days-in-New-Zealand, do what they do with a new soap powder: argue for it, sell it, push it, plug it, but don't compel anyone to buy it if they don't want to.

Do what I'm doing here, in other words.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:55 PM
Category: Bias
[1] [0]
More Colcloughing

Once again I typed "Education" into google, and what was hit number one? That's right. Professor Christopher Colclough of UNESCO. I told you this stuff wouldn't go away.

LONDON: Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and India, home to 61 per cent of world's illiterate's adults, will not be able to achieve 'Education For All' (EFA) by 2015 unless special efforts are made, said a Global Monitoring Report here on Wednesday.

The 2002 "Education For All Global Monitoring Report: Is the World on Track" was launched at a press conference by Prof. Christopher Colclough, an eminent British education expert at UN Information Centre here today. It is prepared by an independent, international team based at UNESCO in Paris as part of the follow-up to the Dakar Forum and is funded jointly by UNESCO, unilateral and bilateral agencies.

Prof. Christopher Colclough explained the salient features of the report which has set six EFA goals at the Dakar Forum a few years back which are, to ensure that all children of primary school age would have access to and complete free schooling of acceptable quality, the gender disparities in schooling to be eliminated. Its aims include that levels of adult literacy would be halved, early childhood care and education would be expanded, learning opportunities for youth and adults would be greatly increased and all aspects of education quality would be improved.

Spot the deliberate mistake. "Its aims include that levels of adult literacy would be halved …"

As I said in my first report on all this, the temptation is to find the silliest thing being said (as I just did), to have a laugh and then to forget about it. But what we are witnessing here is the attempt to create a worldwide Ministry of Education. The effect of that, if it happened, would be to crowd out the efforts of more effective and more directly accountable freelance local educators who would provide a better education system at a fraction of the cost that UNESCO will incur. This is no joke.

With luck, UNESCO will be ignored by all those "donor countries" whom Colclough is now berating, and what money is donated will be pocketed by corrupt Third World politicians and bureaucrats. This will leave the field free for the voluntary and free market operators to do their stuff.

Education in Britain first started to be seriously nationalised in 1870. By then mass literacy was pretty much an accomplished fact, and although the effect of nationalised and ever more compulsory education was gradually to slow down rather than to accelerate educational development, state educators took the credit for the momentum that had already been established by the private sector.

But Britain, in contrast with the Third World now, was cursed (for these purposes) with an honest civil service. Money collected for education was money spent on education, and thus the serious educational damage could begin. So there is hope that the Third World education story may also turn out okay, despite Professor Colclough's worst efforts to mess things up. As I have also reported before, the Indian education story enables us to be optimistic.

Something tells me that BEdBlog readers have not heard the last of this Colclough character.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:12 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
November 14, 2002
Calling Amy – and then maybe Patrick

Have you spotted a pattern? Correct! Something every day no matter how bad or banal, but something. Tonight I am attending a meeting of LSE students in a pub and may be in no fit state to blog afterwards, so here's something for today, of no huge significance, but something.

Calling Amy Hicks. Amy, you posted a comment on this. Thanks, but sadly I couldn't get your links to work. The one to you failed, and I only got anywhere by going www.ecommunico.com, which got me to a strange person's personal website, rather than www.ecommunico.com/dilletante, which got me nowhere. Can you elucidate? The comment made little sense without the links. I'm not getting many comments yet, so I am being very nurturing and caring towards the ones I do get. Bossy, that is to say.

Changing the subject, I haven't forgotten about my promise to have more and better presented links. It's just that Patrick Crozier is, I think, busy moving house, and faffing about with this he does not need until he's settled in his new place.

Also, I'm probably going to start yet another blog, which absolutely won't have to be updated every day and therefore is less liable to be disfigured by inconsequential blather such as this, called Brian's CULTURE Blog (BCBlog?). No need to worry Patrick with that just yet either. I said that BEdBlog would be an education for me and it has been. And one of the things I've learned is that I can fit in another one, provided I set about it the right way and make it all pleasure and no obligation.

There's a moral for teachers and for their self-appointed superiors in among that previous paragraph, don't you agree? Something like: people get a lot more done if they're in complete charge of what they are doing, and do it just the way they like. And, no, I don't just mean the teachers, even though they are most definitely included in that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:05 PM
Category: This and that
[1] [0]
November 13, 2002
On not caring

Last night I watched the movie About A Boy on DVD, which stars Hugh Grant as Will, a lazy living-off-inherited-interest stay-at-home kind of guy, who spices up his solitary life with lots of entertainment toys instead of with people. "No man is an island" says his TV as the opening credits roll. Replies Will in voice-over: "… if I may say so, a complete load of bollocks … This is an island age." Can't think why it appealed to me.

For well-plotted but too complicated to explain reasons, Will finds himself befriended by Marcus, the son of a hippy-dippy suicidal single mum, who dresses like a CND demo and who not only loves Marcus a lot, but does things like say so out loud just as she's dropping him off at school. This turns Marcus' life at school into a living hell.

Much is made of the "role of the father" and the value of "male role models" in the raising of boys. This film (and the book by Nick Hornby on which it is based) explains something of what it is that a man can bring to the business of raising boys. Example is not the point, or not the only one. The great thing about Will is that he doesn't care. He cares about himself, not the boy. So when the boy turns up at Will's black leather, giant TV, tubular steel furniture bachelor pad and barges his way in, he finds an emotionally empty space within which to escape from the hell of school and the emotional minefield of life with mum. He can just chill out.

By the end of the story, Will has himself grown up a bit and is getting out more, which is also on my to-do list, but never mind that for now. My point here is that not caring is a very important thing you can often do for other people. If you don't care, you don't try to force their minds in certain directions, because you don't care what direction their minds go in. You don't force them to make rapid "progress", because you don't care whether they make progress or not. Consequently, they can make whatever progress they want, in whatever directions they want, and really get to learn things.

We in Britain have a very caring government just now, especially in matters educational.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:09 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
[0] [1]
November 12, 2002
Nature - and how to nurture it

For me one of the highlights of the Libertarian Alliance/Libertarian International Conference last weekend was the talk given first thing on Sunday morning by Stefan Blankertz. Listening to a German talking in a definitely German accent about genetics pressed all kinds of irrelevant Anglo-Saxon buttons installed in me by a thousand movies and TV shows, but I strongly recommend that such silly prejudices be shoved aside, and that you also give some attention to this lecture, the entire text of which is now available at Liberalia, the website run by Christian Michel. Blankertz is an uncompromising libertarian, and this was one of the most sensible and humane talks about the relationship between nature and nurture that I've ever attended.

The starting point of his argument was the inescapable fact that children are not all alike. His schematic sub-division of them for the purpose of explication into three learning types - the Worker, the Craftsman and the Student - was almost as crude as the claim that all children are identical, but this enabled him to make his subsequent points, and insofar as genetic differences between children are actually a lot more complicated, as they surely are, then that only lent yet more force to his argument.

If you subject all types of children to an education best suited only to "Students", said Blankertz, then you will not maximise educational achievement. The way to do that, as most sane educators acknowledge even if they may not all care to trumpet it too loudly, is to give each different child the different kind of education that will enable him or her each to make the most progress.

But how do you know what that is going to be? Do you let the parents decide? That's probably better than trusting the state to get it right. But what if some parents, perhaps through an ambitious refusal to face the facts about what sort of child they really have, want their "Craftsman" child, say, to be treated as a "Student", on the grounds that this will turn their child into a Student for real, but will in fact only turn him into a badly educated Craftsman? Blankertz's answer is for the children themselves to have more freedom of choice in the matter.

In short, said Blankertz, summing up:

My conclusion of the Nature versus Nurture debate is as follows:

1. Saying that intelligence is "genetically" determined does not imply that it is not affected by environmental factors.

2. For best results do not choose one environment for all, but the best one for each individual.

3. In order to choose the best environment for each individual we would need complete information, which we don’t have. The next best thing is the market process.

And the next best thing is not the one-style-fits-all insensitivity of many state education systems.

Most state education systems now try to treat all children as "Students", and regard any suggestion that, for example, "Craftsmen" should instead start working in their mid-teens alongside fully qualified adult Master Craftsmen (which is what Blankertz recommends) as insulting. The result of this demand that all students should be "Students" is a shortage of well educated (in craftsmanship) Craftsmen, and dole queues full of badly educated and rebellious ones.

(A Swiss attender of the conference told me afterwards that in his country they follow the recommended Blankertz approach devotedly. The result is a country abounding in profoundly respected and very skilled Craftsmen, in which everything technical works flawlessly and is ready bang on schedule. The contrast with my own Britain is almost too painful to think about.)

Blankertz also took time out to criticise the argument put forward by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their book The Bell Curve. Murray and Herrnstein say that the reason why black children in the USA are not helped more by the state is that they are genetically inferior. But what if this "help" is of the wrong kind, and is actually harmful? Said Blankertz:

What is curious about Charles Murray is that in his former book Loosing Ground he seemed to say exactly this: The welfare state programs actually harmed the underprivileged who were supposed to profit from them. This hypothesis gave Charles Murray some credit among libertarians. But in The Bell Curve he argues that people who do not react positively to the welfare programs could only be genetically inferior. This is just bad science.

Ouch.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:41 PM
Category: Selection
[3] [0]
November 11, 2002
The aesthetics of literacy teaching

I've just finished putting a comment about the Reading Reform Foundation at the end of a piece by Friedrich of the Two Blowhards. Two Blowhards is a blog which I and several other Britbloggers have a particular affection for. This latest piece is about the fact that the people whom Friedrich had hired to teach his child to read didn't know - and worse, didn't care - whether the methods they were proposing to use were the ones that would work the best.

Friedrich identifies an aesthetic response to their preferred teaching method on the part of the teachers he was up against, an angle on this debate I haven't encountered before. Not surprising that he might spot such a thing, though. The Blowhards are nothing if not aestheticians.

I'm still recovering from The Conference (see the previous post but one) so a proper first push from this blog for these guys is beyond me at present. Let it suffice for now for me to say that regularly reading their blog is an education in itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:21 PM
Category: Literacy
[0] [0]
Teachers versus TV

"If you can read this, you must be old" says Joanne Jacobs (to whom many thanks for the link to here last week), ruminating on the declining state of literacy learning in the USA. I say literacy learning, because it is not entirely clear to me that the cause of the problem, if problem it be, is that American children are being taught badly. I suspect it may also be that they are being entertained well. I further suspect that these two influences may be intertwined.

I have heard a number of reports and recollections over the years about the surprising excellence of education behind the old Iron Curtain. One explanation for that is that the old USSR and its various colonies made good educational decisions. But when you consider the crassness of so many of the other decisions these people made, this doesn't strike me as a wholly satisfactory explanation.

How about the utter non-excellence of Soviet television? (This was once memorably described by Oz-in-Britain Clive James as "Grandstand without the sport", Grandstand being the BBC weekend afternoon sports show, and there are now people here who regard Grandstand as being Grandstand without the sport, but that's another argument.) In the absence of an enticing televised popular culture, Soviet-empire children often had nowhere else to look besides school for excitement. And when they got there, their teachers were not cursed by unfavourable comparisons between their mundane selves and magical popular entertainers, because there were no magical popular entertainers, only stuffed shirt puppet propagandists for a government that had turned boredom into an art form. In the West, by contrast, ever since the nineteen sixties, teachers have been fighting a constant battle for the hearts and minds of their pupils against the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Simpsons and Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I'm not saying that popular entertainment shouldn't exist. I love popular entertainment. What I do say is that running a compulsory, class-room-based me-talk-you-listen me-command-you-obey school system has got a whole lot harder now that the stuff outside the classrooms has got so much more diverting.

In short, most of what is now called "teaching" has got a lot harder, and if teaching has also got worse, that may well be a big part of why it has got worse.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:43 PM
Category: Literacy
[2] [0]
November 10, 2002
Some thoughts from the LA/LI conference

Yesterday was day one of the Libertarian Alliance/Libertarian International conference at the National Liberal Club, Whitehall Place. I attended, but had not expected to get anything from it to say on this blog. However, Professor Christie Davies (author of among many other things this) proved me wrong.

Davies, who was a last minute replacement speaker, talking about Equality, mentioned how raising the school leaving age has increased violence in schools, by imprisoning frustrated low IQ man-boy hulks who then take it out on their teachers. Do you know, he asked, which state in the USA has the most school violence? We didn't of course, and he told us the answer: Hawaii. That's because the many Japanese people living in that state, fanatical about the virtues of education no matter what, have caused the school leaving age to be eighteen, no less. The other ethnic groups, not sharing the Japanese passion for education, are the ones directly responsible for this distressing statistic.

One other thing. During the Q&A after Davies' talk, he had an interchange with Sarah Lawrence (of Taking Children Seriously), who had been the first speaker at the conference, but who had talked about the similarity between political and parental tyranny, along the lines of a publication soon to be available on line from the Libertarian Alliance. They talked about education vouchers. And I discovered that I think I oppose the idea of education vouchers. This is because vouchers will necessarily involve the government roaming the land, deciding what is and what is not a school. And the less of that they do, the better. If the vouchers people ever get what they want, look out home schoolers. In fact look out any place where the people there think they're doing education, but which the government does not now control.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:10 AM
Category: Home education
[2] [2]
November 09, 2002
"We care"

A whole world of inter-generational and inter-adult rivalry is summoned up by the question ("It is a good question" is the start of his response) that John Clare selects as number one for his Telegraph column of last Monday.

My granddaughters, aged eight and 10, have been educated at home for the past two years. I'm worried that they're not learning much, but there's no way of finding out. They don't take the national curriculum tests. All that Kent County Council does is send an educational psychologist round once a year. Are there no national standards? Don't we care about home-educated children?

It's a long time since I've seen the connection between "we", "care" and compulsion spelled out quite so clearly.

It also suggests a whole new slant on the expansion of the state: gran-power! Now that the baby boom is starting to fuss about its grandchildren, will it try to vote "education otherwise" out of existence?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:08 AM
Category: Home education
[1] [1]
November 08, 2002
Links – there will soon be many more

I'm just now in the throws of helping with a Libertarian Alliance conference tomorrow and Sunday, and this evening I'm about to leave for another meeting, addressed by fellow BEdBlogger Patrick Crozier. Patrick's talk won't be about anything educational, unless you count congestion charging as "educating" motorists not to come to Central London so much, which maybe you can, just about.

The only other thing I've time to say today is that I will shortly start including a lot more links here, including to such sites as the one mentioned in the posting immediately below, but also to lots of other blogs. My original thinking was that I didn't want to put off people who share my interest in educational matters but who are indifferent or even hostile to my general political prejudices. But the "blogosphere", as my blogging friends call it, is where I am going to get most of my early readers, and there are ways to phrase things to enable those who want to dig deeper into such things as dyslexia to do so without having to bother with what my blogger friends think about George W. Bush etc. Nevertheless linking to all these bloggers will definitely boost the readership of this, and that in its turn will provide an incentive for many more people like Susan to get in touch with specifically educational information and comment. I haven't even decided what heading to put my permanent link to my mothership blog Samizdata under, or the one to Instapundit, for goodness sake. So please everyone (not everyone, but you know what I mean), be patient.

I wouldn't say that everything at BEdBlog is going according to plan, because the only plan was to start it up and see. But despite all my early fumblings I am content with the first few inches of progress that have been made and look forward to the next few inches with interest and curiosity.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:36 PM
Category: This Blog
[2] [0]
A comment on dyslexia

Another comment! This time from Susan Godsland of dyslexics.org.uk, responding to this. Susan says: "OK - have a look at my site then - lots of links to free educational stuff." I did and there is.

My prejudice about dyslexia is, very briefly and for what little it may be worth, that it is a real condition, but one that varies hugely in its impact according to whether the dyslexic is well or badly taught. I further believe that many are diagnosed as dyslexic who are merely people who have been severely mis-taught. But I have much to learn about this matter, and this site will surely help me a lot. Thank you very much Susan.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:18 PM
Category: Literacy
[1] [0]
November 07, 2002
A little distance learning

This being a blog rather than just a magazine, it is not surprising that the subject of how computers do or do not contribute to education has loomed large in the first discussions here.

I'm starting to suspect that although the impact of computers on education is already huge and will get huger, the one huge thing that computers have so far not done is replace very many teachers. To put it another way, computers have not changed teaching very much. What they have changed is the world, and the way that everyone - not just "pupils" or "students" - learns about that world.

I want to write now about a computer program which, again, isn't going to replace any teachers, but which illustrates how at least some teaching might be done very differently to the way it is done now, and in a way that is much more productive and which might yield huge economies of scale.

Last night I had an odd experience. I watched someone else take control of my computer. But he didn't do this by pushing me out of my chair and sitting down at my keyboard, because he wasn't even at my home. He was at his own home, which is miles away. He did this by using a computer program called PCAnywhere, which he had already put on my computer in the old-fashioned way.

He performed this miracle-at-a-distance because we wanted him to install some more software onto my computer, but this time (and every similar time in the future) for him not to waste his time and my money travelling to my home. And since we both have fixed cost, high speed ("asdl") internet connections – connections which allow us to carry on talking on the phone down the very same wires – the whole operation went very smoothly. He rang me, and told me what to do to "surrender" my computer to him, so to speak, and from then on I just watched as my mouse arrow wandered around on my screen, at his command, his screen having switched itself from looking like its normal self to looking instead exactly like my screen.

The "distance teaching" applications of an arrangement like this are obvious, and I expect many a tutorial from him in the future. For remember, there is no reason why my computer master need have confined his attentions to just one computer. He could have taken control of as many other computers as we all collectively chose to agree to.

Now I'm pretty sure that this kind of thing has been going on for many years now, on corporate "intranets" and so forth. But I further suspect that this has recently become a much more widespread experience and is due to become even more widespread, much as the Internet itself started out as a habit only practised by already connected little networks of collaborators in very capital intensive and money-no-object activities like making superbombs or superplanes for the US government. But then the Internet suddenly exploded into a globally interconnected mass experience, as soon as the average personal computer was able to cope. Well, the kind of telecommunicational wiring that is now becoming standard in the average household is becoming able to handle this sort of intimate long range communication between those same computers.

I could elaborate, but the kind of people now reading BEdBlog surely don't need me to. Instead may I simply end with a plug for the expert services of the computer expert I've been talking about. His name is Mark Roussell and he can be emailed here. For remember, what this posting has been all about is that Mark's expert services can now be used by customers anywhere on the planet.

If you trust him. I do, obviously, as do others whom I can refer you to. But that's a whole different discussion.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:38 PM
Category: Technology
[0] [0]
November 06, 2002
On learning Japanese on the Internet

To add my tuppence ha'penny to the debate on internet education I started learning Japanese some months ago. Being a great believer in the potential of the internet to deliver education I signed up with YesJapan which is an internet Japanese course for English speakers run out Las Vegas (of all places).

It is in many ways like a textbook. The skeleton of the course is indeed based on the live lessons (in real classroooms with real students) that take place in Las Vegas. There are, however, some interesting additions. For instance, there are sound files of real native Japanese speakers speaking the words and phrases used on the course. Then there is an online dictionary which can also accept Kanji (the Chinese characters) as input. There is also a Kanji trainer. This is effectively a computerised flash card with the character on one side and its meanings on the other. Another feature is the ability to ask questions and to get them answered. A considerable knowledge base is beginning to accumulate.

The strongest part and YesJapan's great advantage over textbooks is undoubtedly the sound files. You are left in no doubt how the words are pronounced which is especially useful with the letter R (the Japanese pronounce this at different times as "r", "l" and even "d"). It is also useful for listening comprehension which is always the great shock when you go to a foreign country.

The weakness, sadly, is that it is computer-based. I don't know why this is but I prefer paper. It is probably because paper is easier on the eyes and it may be because of the position you adopt when reading. The upshot is that I have recently bought a couple of textbooks and am probably going to cancel my subscription soon.

At the end of this I would like to conclude something either about internet education or about language learning. Alas, I cannot. I just offer this for the record.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 08:21 PM
Category: LanguagesTechnology
[5] [0]
Free range Bachini

Thanks to Alice Bachini for this link to the Free Range Education website. You probably thought, what with me having started BEdBlog, that I would already know about things like that. Wrong. I started BEdBlog to find out about things like that.

Alice also has some mock-na๏ve yet substantial thoughts of her own about Home Educating. Or as she puts it, "Home "Educating"(?)" She's not convinced, in other words, because it's too much like school.

Alice also included a link to something called Choice in Education, although in a manner which suggests that maybe this was a temporary error on her part. It sounds as if it will soon be good, but so far I haven't been able to get past the new front-end, so maybe they're still working on it and Alice left it in her posting by mistake.

This link worked fine.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:34 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
Why I am now a peacenik

BEdBlog isn't here to discuss things like whether the USA should be attacking Iraq, but here's why it shouldn't.

As part of the coalition-building exercise, the USA is rejoining UNESCO, and catching up with all its unpaid subscriptions. This is a financial windfall for UNESCO, which is trying to "globally nationalise" (transnationalise?) education, especially in the Third World, and it will now be better placed to proceed with this.

In other words, education world-wide will become more like this and less like this.

My thanks to my friend Antoine Clarke for this insight.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
A comment on educational software

BEdBlog has had its most substantial comment yet. In my grand manifesto of Nov 2nd, I mentioned the role of computers in education, and my old London friend from way back who's now based in New York, Howard Gray, had this to say:

An aside on the subject of computer teaching. Most of the software is of the "page turner or fill in the blank" variety providing little excitement. Power teaching software is rare.

Some time back, I came across a clever software item called MathXpert by Dr Michael Beeson at www.mathpert.com. (No I don't sell this stuff nor do I get a commission for mentioning it). This clever software creates a way of solving math problems by providing hints and drills to solve algebra and calculus. The software functions as a tutorial ghost, or hand-holder in the background, to nudge you along the way. It does qualify as power teaching software of which there are few really good examples.

Brian is spot on, computers have often failed to make an effective impact in education. For good reasons. "Page turner" junk isn't good use of the technology. Books, pencils, and paper are much better and, more to the point, they are portable without the need for batteries!

Maybe there'll come a time when comments as useful and encouraging as this are an hourly occurrence on BEdBlog, but that time is not yet, and I am very grateful to Howard for this one.

My own prejudice about the use of the Internet to distribute educational material is based on my blogger's prejudice about the use of the Internet to distribute writing, which is that things only come properly alive when a decent number of people give up trying to make money and just start giving their stuff away. A brief look at this "mathpert" man suggests that he is indeed prepared to give out serious stuff, to anyone with an internet connection, even if on the back of that he's trying to boost his career. Fair enough, I'm in favour of people boosting their careers. (Which by the way means that if, unlike Howard, you do stand to gain from peddling educational materials or services or badly paid teaching opportunities here, peddle away.)

Contrast this with the "sample my stuff here but if you're serious I want your money up front" approach adopted by the mathematical van man spotted by Patrick Crozier the other day. He's just using the internet to sell text books. "Brochureware" is the expression I seem to recall reading somewhere. That's fine, that's his perfect right, and his brochures are well worth reading. But dotted around this huge planet of ours there are surely people who are giving out seriously good teaching stuff for free, and I want to hear about it.

Thanks Howard.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:43 AM
Category: Technology
[1] [0]
Bad news – but some good stuff

So I just typed "Education" into Google, and I got 72,200,000 hits, which took Google 0.13 seconds. There isn't going to any shortage of guff for me, and any others I can inveigle into writing for this, to investigate.

Let's take the hits I got from the top.

HIT ONE: A story from New Zealand, which had disappeared from view by the time I got around to testing the link. The government has "privatized" a lot of education down there, and some of the money being sloshed about is being pocketed by scamsters. Many providers, but still the same old paymaster. So "tighter control" is needed.

HIT TWO: A story about the fact that lots of Ethiopians have been going to live in Israel, which tells me something I'd been neglecting to notice about how Jews have been getting along in Ethiopia.

For the first time since the massive immigration from Ethiopia over the last 18 years, the Ministry of Education has prepared a curriculum for teacher [sic] the Amharik language for Bagrut matriculation exams.

Sounds like someone could use a bit of English teaching as well.

According to Israel Radio, a committee for teaching Amharik has been set up in the Education Ministry. It is headed by an expert on African language at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

HIT THREE: Aids Education Fails to Change Behaviour.

... HIV/AIDS education in schools in Sub-Saharan Africa has failed to effect behaviour change despite high levels of knowledge among primary and secondary school pupils.

Researchers at the University of Sussex ...

HIT FOUR: A visit to the website of the US Department of Education. "When it comes to the education of our children … failure is not an option." - signed, President George W. Bush.

"No Child Left Behind." That has got to be as insane a political promise as any politician has ever given, anywhere, ever. What, not one?

I dig deeper, and visit the No Child Left Behind Website. Now, let me see if I can copy this pompous piece of verbiage from the U.S. Secretary of Education. Yes and no. Got a juicy piece of graphics into my word document, but then I'd have to upload it to my whosadaisy. That's a manoevre that will have to wait. The U.S. Secretary of Education said something about how the No Child Left Behind program was making history.

HIT FIVE: EducationWorldฎ The Educator's Best Friend. Warrrrrgh!! A website that looks like a graphic design studio has been sick all over the screen. What did Google say on the hit list?

... What was special about yesterday? EEK – Environmental Education for Kids: Explore the great outdoors! ... Education Humor Newsletter: Sign up now. ... Description: A comprehensive resource which includes a search engine for thousands of educational resources.

Back to the sicky mess website. It starts to make sense.

Today's Lesson: Put turkey on a table (or a graph)! Show turkey population, production, and consumption statistics.

How Toxic is Your School?: Causes, effects vary for sick schools.

Yes, you don't want to kill all your students.

But hello, what's this?

What about the Act's requirement that new middle school teachers have completed an academic major in the subject area they will be teaching? This occasional series answers questions about the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

That again. Another logo, saying "No Educator Left Behind". Question. What if a good teacher stops being a teacher at all, because of not having completed and not wanting to complete an "academic major"?

THAT'S ENOUGH HITS FOR NOW.

Okay, conclusions. All of these hits except the last one are about what governments are doing, or should be doing, or are not doing. Only HIT FIVE contains much actual stuff to help you do education, and even this is interfered with by its Federal Government.

News means bad news. And if you want bad news, put the government in charge of everything. HIT ONE is politically inflicted disaster. A political promise playing itself out, and we're quite deep into the story.

HIT TWO is the government reacting, rather late in the day, to something that has already happened in the world out there, in this case all these Ethiopian folks. But don't tell me there are no Ethiopian lessons already going on Israel. Memo to Israel Government. Relax. Let nature take its course. You don't need to do anything. Don't you have other things to be concerned about?

HIT THREE is another disaster. The best you can say for the politicians is that they didn't create it. But they sure as hell aren't solving it either, although I bet they contributed to it.

HIT FOUR is a disaster in the making, but we are witnessing the very beginning of it, the bright shining dawn. No child left behind! Six years from now, expect the news to be about all the children being left behind, and all the further behind because of what the government is now doing.

Only HIT FIVE concerns actual education, being done by some actual people with stuff to help you do it, but it's not news, it's just a website. Go there and you can explore, e.g., E-LEARNING RESOURCES FOR EDUCATORS. Some of that looks like it might be quite good. Hey. If your family has an internet connection and a printer, you don't need a school anymore!

The politicians give out booming press releases about how great everything is going to be, but then as soon as it goes wrong the press releases are about how we are all letting them down, and failing, and cheating, and not changing our behaviour. Meanwhile we the people – the lucky ones amongst us at any rate - are, rather more quietly and less newsworthily, getting on with our lives.

And show me a government that is ready to tell me about any one of 72,200,000 things that relate to what I've just asked about, after only 0.13 seconds. Nah, nothing special about that. That's not news.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:12 AM
Category: Technology
[0] [0]
November 05, 2002
Spanish practices

Spangolink (actually, I think they prefer to call themselves Inside Europe: Iberian Notes) have an article dealing with the scandalous situation surrounding the English language industry in Spain. It's a bit of a shocker.

Just because something is private doesn't mean it is any good.

Incidentally, having looked at the situation over in Japan recently I got the impression that things over there aren't so different.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 03:30 PM
Category: The private sector
[0] [0]
Boys Won't Be Girls

For all those who want a cheap and cheerful choice of a few of the day's education stories from the British "electronic print" media I recommend Home Educating House Dad. Michael Peach doesn't always have anything new to say each morning, his last posting having been put up last Wednesday. But every morning, on the left, under "UK Education News", there are new links to British education stories, a decent few of which actually come up when you click on them.

For me, the most interesting one today was this, from the electrified version of the Telegraph.

For some years now, a big theme of British educational commentary has been that school life for girls has been easier than school life for boys, because, basically, teachers have tended not to like boys, and "education" has tended to mean getting them to be girls for the duration. Not surprisingly, many boys who might have done a lot better have wilted or rebelled. But read this:

This year, the boys at Kings' have actually overtaken the girls: 82 per cent gained five top grades, compared with 79 per cent of girls. How has such a transformation come about?

"We have taken the 'laddish' culture of our boys and, instead of quashing it, we have harnessed it to good effect," says Ray Bradbury, the head.

"Boys get as much praise in assembly for their sporting achievements, for example, as do the girls for their gentler pursuits. Successful old boys are invited in to talk about the importance of doing well, and we create an atmosphere of encouragement for boys as well as girls.

"Writing snide, negative comments on boys' reports, which used to be a staff-room sport in some schools, is unacceptable here, because boys have feelings, too.

"Most importantly, we have identified the boys who are in danger of under-achieving and we teach them in single-sex groups in English, maths and French, using methods specially adapted for those who can be 'a bit of a handful'."

Ms Parsons, the head of French, is an expert practitioner of these methods. Once her boys are settled, they work on tasks in short bursts. In the lesson I watched, they were given French phrases and had to write and rehearse sketches, and then perform them to the class. All were involved, either acting or correcting each other's pronunciation, and there was no sign of self-consciousness.

Or, as they used to say before it became incorrect, Boys Will Be Boys. Now, saying this seems to be becoming correct again. In general, the notion of an inborn, genetically programmed, gender distinctive human nature is now reasserting itself. (See for example the most recent book of Steven Pinker. Here's a link to a recent interview with Pinker.)

Nevertheless, there remains something rather manipulative about all this. My educational ideal (and if I didn't have at least one of those I wouldn't be doing this now would I?) is for children not to be manipulated at all, and in the meantime to be manipulated a hell of a lot less. The danger of such changes in educational fashion as this one is that one annoying over-generalisation will merely be replaced by another perhaps more accurate one, but still an over-generalisation. Boys Should Be Girls favours one sort of boy, and Boys Will Be Boys might make life nastier for such a boy. Because, one of the most definite features of human nature is that it varies from individual to individual, and no one atmosphere will suit all individual pupils.

But, as manipulation goes, this sounds not so bad. (Ms. Parsons sounds like she won't soon be forgotten!) And good or bad, I hope you agree that it is at least something to think about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:43 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
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The Indian Miracle

Alice Bachini had some fun late last night ("People Educated Privately Should Subsidise the University Fees of People Educated by the State" - you have to scroll down, as usual with b***ger) about the British government's plans to make higher education fairer, and suggests a scheme to tax educational achievement more severely. She's joking, but I didn't really laugh, because what passes now for official, national educational debate in Britain is all about defeatist, defeated, tinkering with a failing system which is going to go on failing.

I fled from all that, to this, an article by James Tooley first published just over a year ago. What a relief.

… The Indian software engineering revolution is a remarkable phenomenon. Of all IPOs in Silicon Valley, 40% have an Indian founder. Nearly a fifth of all R&D staff in American knowledge companies are Indian. These numbers are set to grow, as more and more American and European companies seek to poach Indian expertise. Within India itself, the software industry has grown at an extraordinary rate - from around $150 million in 1992 to $3.9 billion last year, a compounded annual growth rate of 61%. India is second only to the USA in the number of Microsoft Certified Professionals. Although the industry began by contracting low-end business, it is now at the high end of the industry, with US customers buying 61% of the software that Indian companies export. All of the major global telecom companies have opened R&D centres in India.

Okay, but what does this have to do with education? Well, this. The people who are responsible for this Indian economic miracle were almost entirely educated not by the Indian state education system, for this is a crumbling embarrassment. No, they were educated by the Indian education industry, which is booming.

… two companies stand out in the way they have redefined education as an industry – NIIT and Aptech - who together share just over 70% of this market, estimated at roughly Rs. 1.1 billion (about $20 million). Take NIIT. It has 40 wholly owned centres in the metropolitan areas, but has franchised its highly innovative model to 1,000 centres across the whole of India. And, a nice twist on global capitalist imperialism, it has expanded its operations into the USA and UK, as well as having numerous franchises in Asia and Africa.

That's right. The Indian educational private sector stands poised to rescue us Brits from our public sector.

There are advantages to being poor. A country can't afford to waste money on nationalised industries that are big enough to do serious harm. We Brits are rich. We can afford this. In India they can't.

James Tooley is one of the most important education intellectuals in the world. If you don't believe me, you need only take a look at this, a list of his last five years' worth of research into private education work around the world.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:34 AM
Category: Technology
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UNESCO versus education

Bloggers everywhere are saying hurrah for Brian's EDUCATION Blog. Can't stop them. Brian from Samizdata. Not just Brian anybody. Brian Me. So I'd better give all these people who are flocking here in their tens something to read or at least know that they could have read, before I go to bed. So how about this fascinating piece of prose?

Paris, November 4 - Two and a half years after pledging to achieve education for all by 2015, more than 70 countries - on present trends - will not make it. This is the stern warning from the 2002 Education for All Global Monitoring Report which will be launched at a press conference organized by UNESCO in London on November 13.

I really should care about this. But honestly, where's the surprise? It makes you long to turn a satirist loose, to write about how UNESCO is doing its best to stamp out education worldwide, but the problem is still persisting, or some such. And it has to be some kind of law that anything promising things by the year 2015 is self-identified as nonsense.

The report will be presented by the eminent British education and development expert, Prof. Christopher Colclough, who is also its Director.

And I'm sure I ought to know who Professor Colclough is. Anyone? The name does sound vaguely familiar.

This second Global Monitoring Report clearly shows which countries are falling behind, or even going backwards, and examines why this is happening. It also presents some startling conclusions on the question of financing education for all. At the World Education Forum (Dakar, Senegal, 2000), participants, and particularly the major donor nations and agencies, vowed that no country seriously committed to education would be thwarted by a lack of resources. But, two years later, who has paid up? And are the national and international funds devoted to EFA sufficient?

So. Some "countries" have promised to give lots of money to some people not under their control, and now they aren't coming across with it. This is supposed to be startling.

"Countries" don't promise things, or for that matter fall behind or go backwards. "Donor nations" ditto. People promise things and these promises should only be taken seriously when the person doing the promising has complete control over what he is promising to do and is a person with a track record of delivering on such promises.

Governments, no matter how individually trustworthy the individuals who make them up may happen to be, are by their nature not organisations which can be relied upon. Politicians will screw you. They'll promise to hand over gobs of money to you. They'll promise you that they're going to be oh-so-committed to spending that money in the proper way, if someone else is giving it to them. But if you confuse these proclamations with facts about the future, well, you are due for some further education.

My blogging friends call what I'm now doing "Fisking", after a journalist called Fisk whom they all hate. I remember this process from my posh prep school as being called "comprehension". We would have to go through some ghastly lump of prose, sentence my sentence, and make as much sense of it as we could. Hideous memories are flooding back.

Published annually, the report is prepared by an independent international team based at UNESCO in Paris (France) as part of the follow-up to the Dakar Forum. It is funded jointly by UNESCO and multilateral and bilateral agencies, and benefits from the advice of an international editorial board.

And so this proclamation ends. It's so dull it seems to want to be ignored. For twenty minutes I could think of nothing further to say in response. But I knew I would have to think of something, if only to ensure that I at least managed to have the last word on my own blog.

Eventually I did squeeze a conclusion out of myself, and it is this, and that wanting-to-be-ignored vibe was the clue.

The temptation is to say that the Colcloughs of this world, all Colcloughing away year after year, are just total idiots, doing no good to anyone of any sort whatsoever, but – comforting thought – also doing no harm. I wish I could believe this, but I don't. This international fusspotocracy of conferencers and pledgers of achievement and multilateralists and bilateralists and beneficiaries of each other's international editorial advice is already doing actual harm and it threatens to do a whole lot more in the years to come. A failed promise is not the sort of promise that these people are going to allow to just fade away. No. They'll nag and nag away, and eventually they will be sloshing money around the Third World with such abandon that education itself will be seriously damaged, in much the same way that "aid" damages all the other things it is sprayed over. In other words, and this is my key point here, just ignoring this stuff won't make it go away.

For people like me the damage is already being done. This kind of verbiage already occupies mental space in educational heads everywhere, that ought to be occupied by quite different and much more accurate ideas about how education in particular and things in general are actually done successfully. When I go fishing for what's been happening in "education" today, this guff is not what ought to rise, dripping, out of the canal. But it did.

On the other hand, if you work for UNESCO or you were at this Dakar Forum or if you think that UNESCO reports like this can make an actual beneficial difference to the world, then push where it says "Comments" and do your worst.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:50 AM
Category: Politics
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November 04, 2002
Links and literacy

I make no secret of it: I have a lot to learn. And one of the things I most want to learn is: Which stuff will remain up on the www for ever, and which stuff will vanish, or be shut away in a complicated registration or payment prison? For example: Will this link to an article published on October 10th by independent.co.uk about a particular brand of "Synthetic Phonics" still be working two years from now? Or should I quote a few paragraphs from it, to ensure that this posting will make sense even if this link eventually peters out? Paragraphs like these:

It's just after break at Trinity Road primary school in Chelmsford, and the eager five-year-olds in Miss Tait's class are sitting on the carpet waiting for their lesson to start. Suddenly it begins at a cracking pace. Miss Tait warms the children up by getting them to build up some simple three-letter words from their constituent sounds. "My turn M-e-n, men. Your turn..." she says. "M-e-n men," they chant in response.

…

They are part of a successful scheme pioneered by Dr Jonathan Solity and Essex County Council with around 10,000 children across more than 170 of the authority's schools. The scheme challenges the Government's National Literacy Strategy on the grounds that it is not succeeding in teaching children to read. Since its introduction in 1995, Dr Solity's project has seen standards rise. The proportion of children who struggle to read and are labelled as having learning difficulties has been cut from around 25 per cent to between two and eight per cent.

Around 20 per cent more seven-year-olds now reach the required standard for their age using Dr Solity's methods. If his scheme were adopted nationally, it would save the Government more than ฃ200m a year and rescue thousands of children from the educational scrap heap, he says.

The debate about how children should be taught to read has been a long and bitter one. And it was reignited last month by the Government's admission that it missed its target for enabling primary-school children to read and write. That target, set in 1997, pledged to have 80 per cent of pupils reaching the required standard in English tests by this summer. However, the initial strong improvements tailed off and the figures failed to show any improvement for the second year running, so that only 75 per cent of 11-year-olds were successful this summer.

The article goes on to refer favourably to two people whom I've learned to respect, who are among the people associated with the Reading Research Foundation, Sue Lloyd of Jolly Phonics, and Dr Bonnie Macmillan, who wrote a monograph for the Institute of Economic Affairs which I reviewed favourably for the Libertarian Alliance.

I would love to hear from anyone who believes that my prejudices about literacy teaching are all wrong, and that the government, with its "balance of different methods", is on the right track in literacy teaching after all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:21 AM
Category: Literacy
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November 03, 2002
Maths - the traditional way

I saw this link, I kid you not, on a van parked in Twickenham. It is for a company called Accelerated Education Publications whose slogan is "Teaching the traditional way."

Which doesn't sound right. Traditional and accelerated don't normally go together. So, I decided to have a look at the website. It turns out that maths teaching has been so badly undermined by trendy teaching methods and the National Curriculum that no one knows how to teach it anymore and that old is the new new.

Sounds like a good market to be in.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 05:09 PM
Category: Maths
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November 02, 2002
The first big posting on what this is all about

Time for a grand manifesto which will tell the waiting universe what Brian's EDUCATION Blog stands for, believes in, etc. Well, this is no grand manifesto if only because too much will surely get left out, but it will have to do to get things started.

I think what I believe in most is having certain arguments. If I was sure about my side of all of them, BEdBlog wouldn't be nearly as interesting as it actually is going to be.

For starters I'm a libertarian. But I don't just believe in libertarianism for adults; I also believe in it for children. Children are different? So are women. So am I. Lawyers are different from professional ice-hockey players. Does that mean that the usual arguments for liberty do not apply?

But of course I expect lots of counter-assertion from people who believe that "treating children like adults" is all wrong. The relevant link here is to the TCS (which here means Taking Children Seriously, not Tech Central Station) website. Alice Bachini has also presided over several disputes along these lines, such as this, in which I did some commenting.

But that doesn't mean that I have no interest in or agreement with the lesser claim that schools ought at least to be denationalised. (Here the relevant link is to the E. G. West Centre.) I think that parents are almost always going to be better and more humane judges of their children's best interests than is the state, so giving them more power and the state less is likely to improve things, not only for parents but also for children.

I am far more respectful about "formal" teaching than you might expect me to be. I simply don't accept that "learning this needs to be structured" and "learning this needs to be compulsory" are the same statement, and it is a constant source of amazement to me how many other people do seem to think they are identical.

In general, there's the whole vexed matter of government education policy to be considered, both here in Britain and elsewhere. Patrick Crozier did a piece for a piece for CrozierVision (blogger archives chaos - scroll down to Sat Oct 26), about the demise of Education Minister Estelle Morris. I hope in the days, weeks and months to come to be linking to many other such pieces. If you have links like that to suggest, do please suggest away. (Actually, I've been getting ahead of myself and this process has already started.)

I am fascinated by the idea that computers are encroaching upon orthodox education. However, they have so far failed, rather dismally to my eye, to computerise actual teaching. No, the big computer impact so far has been from the internet, which luckier children are allowed to relate to in just the same way that adults do. This makes all claims about how you can only learn about the big wide world out there by going to school even more obsolete than such claims were in the past (and they were pretty suspect even then, in my opinion). However, I do not give up hope of learning about truly effective teaching software. After all, they teach you to drive passenger airplanes these days by putting you on a simulator, not an airplane. So you'd think by now they might have cracked how to teach a kid his ABC. Tell me about any education software you admire, or maybe are trying to sell. The worst that can happen is that I or other commenters won't like it.

Speaking of commenters, I believe in good manners, when teaching and learning, and in life generally. Educational debates can become very vexed, but if the comments become too "vexed" (i.e. abusive) I'll edit them or even chop them out altogether. Please everyone remember that neither error nor ignorance are crimes, and ignorance frankly acknowledged isn't a crime of any sort.

I'll end by referring to all the self-referential floundering by me and Patrick Crozier that I have already included, as we try to get Brian's EDUCATION Blog actually to work. (My deepest thanks again to Patrick.) I included this stuff not just out of self-indulgence and for the convenience to me and to historians of having a few very early diary entries, but also to remind us all just of what ignorance (and also, let's face it, the occasional bout of sheer stupidity) looks like and feels like. To contemplate our own imperfections when trying to learn something is a great corrective when one is contemplating the supposed stupidity of others, pupils of course, but also teachers. I'm serious when I say that a big part of the point of BEdBlog is to educate B. And Patrick too, because he is thinking of switching his UK Transport blog to Movable Type also. I have told Patrick that he has my full backing if he chooses to expose his incompetely encyclopaedic knowledge of Movable Type and its mysteries on BedBlog and to tout for answers to any problems he is grappling with. Call it distance learning!

That ought to throw sufficient spanners out of the frying pan into the pigeons, and ruffle sufficient hackles to set the ball buttering two birds with one light bulb thereby enabling them to gather moss. Let battle commence, but politely remember.

I'm now off to the Samizdata first birthday party, Samizdata (another big learning experience for me) having begun life exactly one year ago today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:12 PM
Category: This Blog
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Pay as you go

Freedomandwhisky had a piece last Thursday about how the Principal of St Andrews University has been arguing that his university should charge students more and the taxpayer less. I agree. So does Alex Singleton.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:16 PM
Category: Free market reforms
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"They came in and wanted to check up on everything, …"

This is from a BBC news report of about a week ago, about bullying, suffered by teachers:

One teacher told how he felt he was victimised after becoming a union representative.

In a BBC Radio Ulster interview he said: "At every turn the management were scrutinising me closer, overseeing me, questioning everything I decided to do and I got the impression I was being put under the microscope.

"Anxiety crept into my teaching. They came in and wanted to check up on everything, my plans, marking, and for the first time ever I was nervous going into a classroom environment."

"And that badly affected my home-life and my wife became ill with a stress-related illness."

Now I could have some fun with this, about how this teacher now knows what it's like being a pupil. "They … wanted to check up on everything, …", and so on. But Home Educating House Dad got there first, with his posting on the 24th. (Sorry, can't make his weird archiving software work yet, so scroll down.)

The House Dad also has comments on Britain's new Education Minister who has, sadly, replaced ex-Minister Estelle Morris. Whenever a Minister resigns, you think, great. But then a day later, along comes another. Why do Ministerial resignations have to be spoilt like this, with subsequent appointments?

Patrick, another one for the links section, please.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:00 AM
Category: Bullying
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November 01, 2002
Watching for biased cant

In preparation for going public tomorrow with BEdBlog - and I think that's a nicer acronym than BEB, don't you? - I ought to be writing a Grand Pronouncement about Life, Education and Everything. Instead, here's just the first of many brand-X BEdBlog postings, this being, because I just happened to come across it, about a blog called Cant Watch, and in particular about this piece on leftward bias in academia. That's a story which isn't going to go away any time soon. I haven't read the piece very thoroughly, let alone the three previous pieces before it in the series of which it is number four, but it looks good, if only because it mentions Brink Lindsey's Dead Hand favourably. (That's a book, by the way, not an affliction.) The piece also names some guilty academics. And of course there are lots of links to sympatico blogs, books and sites.

Patrick: Can we (by which I mean: can you) put Cant Watch on the list of "Education Friendly Blogs" please? In alphabetical order would be preferable - as and when it suits to do it. And while we're (you're) about it, could you also please do me, sometime, another subject category: "Academic Bias". As I say, we're going to need that one a lot. Thanking you in anticipation.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:40 PM
Category: Bias
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