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Chronological Archive • December 2002
December 31, 2002
An army view of British education

A friend of mine is a British army officer. I dined with him the other night and he asked me about this blog and how it was going. Fine I said, and I started to ask him about the army approach to education, by which I meant how the army goes about educating its people. He did eventually give me an excellent and detailed answer to that question, which I hope to tell you all about at a later date, but before that could happen, he dived in with a most interesting spiel about how the army sees education, by which he meant the education system that its recruits come from, while making it very clear that what he was saying wasn't just his own opinion, but was something that army officers as a whole all tend to agree about.

He focused on two particular changes that seem to have been happening in the raising of young men in our society. (1) They tend nowadays to lack "physical robustness", at any rate compared to former times, and (2) they tend to have no understanding of authority, ditto. These were the two big things that he emphasised.

By robustness he meant that young men tend nowadays seem to have no notion of how you can stick at some physical task even though it might be hurting. Pain is not necessarily the same thing as damage, and might actually be a sign of a growth in physical strength, but the latest army recruits didn't seem to get that, and had to be taught about it.

Second - the authority thing - well, that seemed to be related to the fact that the sort of men who now go into the lower ranks of the army have a serious statistical tendency not to have fathers and in general not to have had any history of knuckling under to any disciplined regime.

You can see how these two things are actually pretty closely related. In fact they are but different aspects of the same fact.

My personal interpretation of all this is that nowadays boys aren't having to do anything others tell them to do, but neither are they doing anything much that they want to do. They have a definite tendency, in short, to be doing nothing. But this is not a long posting about what I think, it's a short posting about some of the things that my friend the army officer thinks about British education.

All I really want to add now is to say: Happy New Year. I haven't got around to analysing who is reading this blog, but the comments suggest that some people are, and I want to thank all of you. I repeat my intention to post something here every normal working day, and maybe things also on abnormal non-working days such as today is. Regular visitors can be pretty sure of new stuff if they visit every day or two.

I've just seen the latest Bond movie. Try as I might, I can see no educational angle on this whatsoever, other than to observe how much more amusing a male teenager of the army sort would find it than something like geography lessons. So I'm having fun, and I hope you are too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:33 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
[3] [0]
December 30, 2002
Muslim homeschooling

Michael Peach, a strong supporter of home education, links to a report that there has been an increase in the number of Muslims in the USA who are choosing to homeschool their children. (Daryl Cobranchi also alludes to a similar story.) Sets alarm bells ringing, doesn't it? Says Mike:

Now just as I don't agree with the state being involved in education I don't agree with religion being involved in it either. Sure, educate about the various religions of the world if you choose to but to base your whole education system on religious principle. .... Sorry, I find it all kind of scary.

I believe in home education and I think parents are responsible for their children's education so should I be for this or against it? I just don't know.

I'm not certain either, but my inclination is to say: let it happen, and worry about any damage it does when it does it and not before. (Incidentally, does Mike also worry about all those homeschooling Christians in the USA?)

I suppose there are two fears about Muslim homeschooling. First, it will result in an irrevocably divided community, divided along religious lines, similar to the divided community we Brits already have in Northern Ireland. Second, it will (maybe) breed (just a tiny few) terrorists.

But look at it this way. If Muslims don't get - or are somehow not allowed to exercise the right to home education, then they are more than ever likely to insist on having Muslim schools. And what is more likely to be taken over by Wahahbi maniacs? Muslim families or Muslim schools? I'd say Muslim schools. And I'd especially say publicly funded Muslim schools, in which consumers (i.e. parents) can be kept at arm's length and lorded over by the externally-funded producers, the people running the place.

Also, if the only way to get a Muslim education is to send your kids to a Muslim school, that might reinforce the tendency of Muslims to live in separate communities, in order to get into the right school catchment area. But if they are the masters of their own houses, no need for them to move house to get the sort of lives they want for themselves and their children.

None of which is certain. But if you are uncertain, go with freedom.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 PM
Category: Home education
[5] [0]
December 27, 2002
The Charlton contrast

"Those who can do, those who can't teach" right? Only partly right. Partly very wrong.

There are many different ways of teaching, many different ideas wrapped up in the word. I did an interesting little teaching stint recently, in a teacher training college. An academic friend of mine couldn't teach his class in politics, or philosophy, or whatever it was, and he needed me to fill in for him. My friend had in mind that I might like to dose these students with yet more of the political opinions that both I and my friend shared, but since these students were all of them intending to become teachers of one kind or another I decided we'd have a discussion about all the different meanings in the idea of teaching. "I agree with him about politics etc., so let's take that as given, shall we? Let's talk about what teaching means." It went well. We had nearly two hours to fill, and let me tell you, we had no problem whatsoever filling the time. (It may even have been more persuasive politically. After all, the customers found it interesting and illuminating and thought-provoking and fun, or so they all said.)

Here, for example, are two very different meanings to teaching, at opposite ends of one particular scale. At one end there's teaching by example. And at the other end there's being technically rather poor at whatever it is, but, for this reason, being all the more effective at helping the students battle with their technical deficiencies and in general sympathising with them in their struggles.

Consider two great English footballers: the Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jackie. (Both of them played in England's World Cup winning team of 1966.)

There's no doubt about which was the more expert ball-player. Bobby by a mile. Bobby was the crowd-pleaser. It was Bobby's dazzling moves that caught the eye. If you wanted to know what scaling the heights of footballing skill looked like, then look no further. Feast your eyes on Bobby Charlton. And teaching by example is one very important way to teach. People like Bobby Charlton show you things that you might otherwise have assumed to be utterly impossible. That's definitely part of great teaching.

But now consider Jackie. Jackie Charlton wasn't as technically expert as his brother, but he was determined to succeed, and he did. When on the pitch he didn't look like the intellectual type, more the thug defender type, but Jackie Charlton made it as a footballer essentially by thinking about how to be as good a footballer as he could manage. He filled the gap between himself and his brother with brainpower. What for Bobby was more instinctive, for Jackie was much more self-conscious and decided-upon and then self-imposed. If you aren't fast, think about where to be in the first place. In general, it would seem, football defenders have to be brainier than attackers, because although attackers can often work wonders with sheer instinct, defenders must be more disciplined, and, for example, more aware of where all the other defenders are, and where the attackers are, and what they're all doing. Learning to defend is a much more intellectual process than learning to attack. No matter how instinctively talented you are as a defender, you have to think about it a lot.

And who do you suppose became the better footballing teacher? Was it the inspired Bobby or the cerebral, hard-working Jackie? No contest. Bobby never made it as a manager. The lesser players he had in his charge couldn't do what he had been able to do, and he couldn't tell them about how to do it. He just did it - why couldn't they? Well, they just couldn't, or not without some guidance. For Jackie on the other hand, moving from thinking about and guiding his own footballing efforts to becoming a thinker about and a guide for the efforts of others, that is to say a manager (which is what they call a teacher in football), was a seamless process. He certainly had to think like fury when he started out as a manager, but by then this was a totally natural habit for him. Jackie has had a highly distinguished career as a manager, culminating in a spell managing the Irish national side in the World Cup, with great success and to great national acclaim.

Bobby Charlton has whiled away his time as a talent scout (he could spot it even if he couldn't teach it), and, more depressingly, on the Aging Celebrity circuit. By most standards he's had a good life, but by his own standards it must have been a bit of a let-down.

Now I quite agree that as a definition of averageness, being a so-so member of a World Cup winning football team is decidedly imperfect. We should all be so average. Nevertheless, there is a moral here for all those "average" teachers, putting up with the jibes of their more "successful" contemporaries. Can't do anything, can he? - he's a teacher. Couldn't cut it in the "real world"? Well those could be just the things that make some teachers such good teachers. They can sympathise with their struggling pupils because they can remember what it was like when they were struggling, because they still are struggling. They can help baffled adolescents navigate through their exams and their lives, because it's all they can do to manage such things for themselves, right now.

Good education can't only be done by the Jackie Charltons, the humble tryers, the cloggers. You need the living proof of what is possible that only the Bobby Charltons can show you to really inspire the best of the next generation to scale the heights. But the cloggers have their place. Those who can't do can often be just the can-do teachers that you sometimes need.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:13 PM
Category: How to teach
[3] [0]
December 26, 2002
The Breakfast Club is now illegal

Now it seems to me that pupils can have civil rights. Or pupils can be made to be pupils whether they want to be pupils or not. But it's hard to see how both arrangements can be made simultaneously. But consider this story:

A 15-year-old schoolgirl is suing her education authority claiming that school punishments breached her civil rights, it emerged today. The case could lead to detentions being abolished in Scotland.

Freya McDonald, from Tomnavoulin in Morayshire, claims that 11 detentions in nine months for offences she describes as "trivial" disrupted her education and affected her health.

A solicitor for the girl and her mother, Annie, has now written to Moray council intimating their intention to sue under the European Convention on Human Rights, claiming the detentions were unlawful and seeking compensation for stress.

The family solicitor, Cameron Fyfe, confirmed that if successful the action could mean the end of detention as a punishment in Scotland's schools.

Under Article 5 of the European Convention, detention can only take place if there is a "lawful order".

He said this would mean that a detention due to run in a child's free time, as it had in Freya's case, could not come from the school itself but would need this legal authority.

Now part of me is delighted at all this. If you can't have human rights for children and compulsory education, and if you are going to have human rights for children similar to those accorded to adults, then what will happen to compulsory education is exactly what I want to happen to it.

Yet the truth surely is that a lot of people are going to suffer from the appalling philosophical and legal incoherence of all this. No one is saying: "Compulsory education is an affront to human rights." But that is what should be said, by someone involved in this argument, for this argument to be recognised for what it is. Instead, the illusion is being allowed to persist that children can simultaneously be treated like people with rights, and as the legitimate objects of compulsion.

I think most of us are familiar with the idea that good teachers are not so much teachers who follow good rules, as teachers who are clear and honest and consistent and impartial in following whatever rules they do follow. A consistently and honestly authoritarian teacher is preferable to an inconsistently liberal teacher. It seems to me that the adults involved in this case are behaving like bad teachers in this sense.

The confusion is going to be bad for children, bad for parents, bad for teachers, and good only for lawyers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:11 AM
Category: Compulsion
[4] [1]
December 25, 2002

Happy Christmas everyone! No homework today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:44 PM
Category: This Blog
[1] [0]
December 24, 2002
"You'll get it in your own time"

There's been a comment on an earlier posting here about the need (or not depending on what you think) for the minority of children who don't take naturally to reading to be made to learn it good and early. I guess a lot of readers of this this I don't copy and paste it in a new posting, and it is worth reading. So here it is, from Fritz:

People who cannot yet read, can still learn. With access to the world, to TV and computer and books on tape, and a helper to read things to them when they want to know something that needs reading, pre-reading children are learning all the time. And when they do start to read, it comes fast and furious.

Perhaps the 20% who have trouble learning to read, would be able to sort it out by their early teens (or earlier) if they are not analyzed and labeled as having a particular sort of difficulty early-on. I've seen children learn to read, with only the help they ask for in learning about how letters sound and what a word says, and being read to when they want to be, much later than they would have to learn in order to be accepted as 'normal' in a school. I suspect such children would be labeled challenged in some way when they confuse d and b and p and q, and can't remember some of the letters' sounds. If not made to feel bad about not knowing these things, if encouraged with a 'you'll get it, in your own time', and helped to learn about these things in ways that make sense to them, I suspect that most children will be reading when they are ready. Maybe some of those problems are caused by pushing children to read too early, before they are ready. Any problem will become apparent and solutions can be found.

Anyhow, that is an alternative vision to the 'compelled literacy' one.

This is what I want to be true. But I guess "early teens" will sound to many like an awfully long time to wait. And what of those children who don't have all that "help" they're going to need if they can't read for themselves?

If a few Nobel Prize winners were to email me with the story of how they only started reading at fourteen, that might ease my mind.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:51 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
The dog pack gets its kill (and the public sector becomes a tiny bit more impossible to run)

Most of the people reading this story are probably thinking either "good riddance to the mad PC-obsessed hag" or "paedophiles are a real problem - she shouldn't have had to resign".

This is the story:

A headteacher who banned photographic equipment from a nativity play for fear of the images being manipulated and circulated on the internet by paedophiles has resigned.

Pamela Nunn, of Homefield first school in Bradwell, near Great Yarmouth, said the decision, made with the school's governors, to ban cameras from the church hall in which the children were performing, had caused such a row with parents that she had decided to resign.

She announced her resignation to parents after the performance on Friday.

But for me this next one was the key paragraph:

She told the Eastern Daily Press newspaper: "I have seen too many colleagues finish their careers with stress, and feel I owe it to my family to go now."

So what do I think the story is?

I think it's the same as my December 21st story about that "death threat", namely the way that the media, including such things as blogs, now wield a disproportionate amount of power over state education. It's not the mere fact of any old Tom, Mike or Brian being able to read the story or what we suppose to be the story that is doing the damage by itself. Nor is it the inherent absurdity of the public sector that sector where no one is really in charge and where the lines of responsibility and accountability are liable to turn to mush under any sort of stress or during any sort of crisis. It's the combination of the two.

Yes. (The word "yes" during a blog posting signifies that things are actually being learned by the blogger even as he blogs, right there somewhere during the previous few sentences.)

So: yes. Blogs are the lowest form of media life that there are. They are the media equivalent of the single cell organism. Nevertheless when you run a blog, and especially a "specialist" blog devoted to discussing "serious issues", like this one, you become a definite part, however small, of the media.

And what I have learned by being a blogger is why the public sector has stopped working, not from the moment it got started in its modern form, but since "the media" got into their stride and became serious expressions of popular interest and enthusiasm rather than just aristocratic hobbies or government bureaucracies. The public sector was always a bit of a shambles. Now, insofar as it is allowed to be public at all (which is not all of it by any means) it is a public shambles.

This wretched head teacher woman is nagged by some hyper-worried parent into banning video-ing of nativity plays. That sets off the other parents, who then feel that they are themselves being accused of being in league with the paedophiles.

The hacks smell a row, and pile in, and stir it shamelessly.

If it looks like it's about to die down they ring around all the potentially quarrelling parties and get them back at each other's throats by asking them loaded questions and quoting the answers totally stripped of all the qualifications and back-trackings, first to each other, and then in their newspapers and radio and TV reports. Because why? Because the media might succeed in getting A Result. In this case if they keep it up, they might get That Woman to jack it in or be fired.

And guess what? That Woman has jacked it in. She isn't paid enough. She doesn't, ultimately, have enough invested in her school. Bottom line: it's not her school. It's The Community's school. It is owned not by any recognisable person or persons, but by that swirling, howling abstraction, The People, who in this case might as well be a dog pack. At any moment, this dog pack, in the form of the governors, the local politicians, even, if you please, the Minister of Education himself, might decide that "she has to go" and start issuing hostile press releases against her, in other words some mighty respectable beasts might join the dog pack at any moment.

No individual has the power to stand against these forces. That's what makes them so evil.

There is no one who can face the mob and say: "To hell with you all. This is my place. I run it how I run it. If you don't like it you can say what you like and you can keep your children away from it and tell everyone else you know to do likewise. But you won't get rid of me or change my way of doing things, and if you carry on with your dog-packing in my corridors and outside my front door then I'll call the police and have you beaten back with wooden clubs. End of story."

No one can say that. Which means that the story never ends until there's a kill.

There are two answers.

The wrong answer is to shut down the media (including now the blogs), disinvent the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties and the noughts, and hand the world back to a self-perpetuating aristocracy of self-perpetuating aristocrats who can do what they like, unchallenged, unmocked by the journos, no matter what they do.

The right answer is to clarify property rights. Get it sorted who owns what. That way, when the dog pack starts to howl there will be people doing education who can shout it down and subjugate it, as and when.

The first can't happen, so the second will. People will simply refuse to take these impossible jobs in the bits of the public sector that really are public. I recall reading not long ago that an idyllic little primary school in Wales was advertising for a new Head. But it couldn't find one, and it was going to have to close. This time the dog pack took the form not of insane media people, but of insane civil servants deluging the wretched incumbent with insane forms to fill in which is a sort of institutionalised version of dog pack rule, if you think about it. "Make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again!" etc. etc.

The result may (or may not) be a new private sector school springing up, just as soon as the locals can get it arranged (or for as long as they can't be bothered). If that happens, the people running this school on the one hand and the local journos and bloggers on the other will be able to square up to each other on equal terms, and solicit support from locals either for the school or for a big local row about it. Sorted. If nothing, then nothing.

As for the "public sector" as a whole no such single solution beckons. If the Minister of Education himself were to resign, there would be a huge mob of people all desperate to replace him, however insane the job might prove to be. So the public sector of education will have to crumble away bit by bit, and fail to improve blank cheque by blank cheque. And it is. Pity, but what can you do?

A Happy Christmas to all my readers.

Tomorrow and Boxing Day (as we Brits call the day after Dec 25) will be treated here like a weekend, as will the day after that. And the two days after that really are the weekend. During all these days, I may put things up, but I may not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:26 PM
Category: This and that
[1] [0]
December 23, 2002
Theatrical teaching

In an earlier posting, I hinted in passing that old fashioned teaching with a touch of showbiz about it often works quite well. This is a story about not such old-fashioned teaching, but also with a showbiz background.

The Victorian red bricks and solid window frames are vibrating at Heathbrook Primary School, in Wandsworth, south-west London, as a year six class of 10- and 11-year-olds shout and stamp loudly. A riot? Hardly. Jim Pope is teaching literacy, numeracy and developing social and listening skills through drama - and it's one of the best managed, most immaculately planned and informative lessons I've seen.

First, the children stand in a ring chanting an action song so rhythmic that it's still echoing in my head several days later.

Then comes a gloriously simple but patently effective mental arithmetic game in which each wall represents two, four, six or eight and the children are in teams. Someone invents a sum, such as 27 divided by three minus one. As soon as they've worked out the answer, they run to the appropriate wall. The last one is out. It sounds hectic, but Pope is scrupulous about safety, constantly reminding the children of the rules.

Jim Pope is not a "supply teacher"; he's an actor.

Jim Pope is employed by the Bigfoot Theatre Company, based in south London. The brainchild of actor and educational missionary Karl Wozny - his feet are size 13 - Bigfoot has been running after-school clubs, holiday courses and performances for children for the past three years. This year, it started a supply teaching agency.

Bigfoot works with 50 "supply" actors. Few are qualified teachers but all are experienced in working with children and are "police checked". Bigfoot trains them rigorously in school practices and the curricula before they start. Once in schools, they are carefully observed until the company is satisfied that the work is up to standard. And the company continually spot-checks its actor/teachers.

The link between showbiz and teaching is an ancient one. At the boarding school I went to the all too rare staff plays were occasions to be treasured, not because it was a chance to witness teachers making fools of themselves, but simply because the pick of them were so amazingly good at acting. I remember a Ben Travers farce to this day, which to me seemed just as good as any professional show I'd ever seen. The ancient art of getting the attention of an audience, and then keeping it using it to tell a memorable story, has obvious applications to teaching.

What is interesting about Bigfoot is that they are using "audience participation" techniques first developed by left-wing agitprop theatre groups in the sixties and seventies to teach bad politics and bad economics to teach, by the sound of it, quite good basic education.

The obvious grumble about such teaching is that children only like it because their usual fare is so boring. Well, maybe so, but at least it sounds as if it is better. And anyway, this sounds like the kind of thing that might survive in a purely free market in education, with parents buying tickets to such shows much as they would buy tickets for any other, and children only attending because they truly want to and find it fun.

You get the feeling that Bigfoot was only ever in the semi-private sector, with local authorities being its major customers, rather than mere people. And now it is adding another tranch of the public sector to its customer base: schools. But it's important that the "supply-side", as my free market lobbyist friends would say, remains in the private sector. They must remain in charge of their product. If they don't, quality control will collapse.

Everything would depend on having people as good as Jim Pope appears to be, as talented to begin with, and as well prepared. The corrupting process to stay alert for is the state system deciding that it could supply lessons like this, just as well as Bigfoot but more cost-effectively and in a more controlled and monitored way, and then turning it into a soulless and tyrannical routine, in the hands of an army of teachers who don't see the point of it all, hate doing it, and take their resentment out on their pupil victims.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:25 PM
Category: How to teach
[0] [0]
December 22, 2002
Quote unquote

"As students throughout Northeast Florida start winter break, teachers say there are plenty of educational activities they can do at home."

Hot off the virtual press in Jacksonville Florida. Thanks to Daryl Cobranchi for this startling revelation. ("You don't say.")

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:44 AM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
December 21, 2002
Thoughts on a death threat which wasn't

Mike Peach is onto something of a story, namely the "death threat" that has been expressed by one of a chat-posse of exasperated teachers blowing off steam in the TES chat room. Mike recycles the quote. One teacher, it seems, from time to time yearns for

"a large handgun ... to blow the head off of the first pupil who has failed to shut up/do homework/sit properly at their desk/speak politely to me".

Well, maybe this is a story, but in my opinion the story is not that this man (I'm guessing he is a man) is a murdering psychopath. It is that he is only one of thousands upon thousands of stressed-out teachers who are finding life harder and harder, caught between an ever less deferential populace, ever more attracted by the alternative enticements of electronic pop culture, and an increasingly meddlesome central government which bombards state teachers with bureaucratic torments as never before in English educational history. Yet these teachers are expected to make the sort-of almost completely compulsory, "inclusive" (i.e. no-expulsions), state education system just keep on rolling as if nothing bad was happening to it.

The other day there was a story about how a struggling school in the north of England had gone to the immense trouble and expense of recruiting a couple of new teachers from Jamaica. In Jamaica, old-fashioned education, at least for the more aspirational pupils and teachers in the better schools, lives on, and our Northerners were trying to import a slice of that old magic.

It's the same story, I think. The story being what a ghastly job it can be, teaching in a British state school. The locals can't or won't do it any more, and certainly not with the old ease and confidence and contentment.

Remember also that comments in computer chat rooms, and for that matter many blog postings and blog comments, are put together and "published" a lot more hastily than something like an article in the old Times Education Supplement, and thoughts that are how can one put it? somewhat unprocessed will find their way into virtual print. That, after all, is part of the point of these things.

If people in the Old Media decide to try to make something of this, along the lines of the above quote being a real death threat, then maybe the real story should be the deliberately misleading malevolence of the Old Media. They take a hasty little remark which was at least honest about a real problem, parlay it into a major row by bouncing it off some special interest groups who also benefit from pretending that the "death threat" was the real thing, gouge ever more undignified apologies and retractions from, in this case, the TES website editors, and then report the whole mess as if it just happened by itself, when they truth is that they created it themselves pretty much out of thin air.

This kind of thing is okay if the original blurter-out was the US Senate Majority Leader. (That's a recent real case this man has just blurted himself right out of the job by saying something racially unacceptable). For a teacher telling it like it is, and for a website trying to go on allowing people to do this, it would be cruel and stupid and would solve nothing.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that (the selfish, careerist, ambitious part of) Nick Farrell of computer active on line is hoping that things do proceed along exactly the above lines. Farrell's piece (thanks to Mike for the link) ends thus:

A TES spokesman told the BBC that the teachers were doing what some might do in the pub after school, and were simply venting their frustrations by playing a silly fantasy game.

Two things of note there. One, TES "spokesmen" are already talking to the BBC about this, and two, they are already conceding that it is "silly" for the truth of what it can feel like to be a state teacher to see just a little bit of the light of day. So already the Media have got the Human Beings on the run here. Already there is a trace of blood in the water.

Yet how long before some crazed prematurely retired teacher sets fire to a school? And when that happens, will it emerge that several times the poor wretch tried to say how it felt being a teacher, but they told him to shut up and to stop rocking the boat?

And before I stop, one more point. I freely admit that I'm grinding my various axes here, just like everyone else in this story, or what there is of it so far. By paying my little bit of attention to this (so far) non-story, I'm doing my little bit to stir it all up. So it would now suit me (i.e. this blog) quite nicely if the Media proceeded to do exactly what I have said earlier that they shouldn't.

But my "official" opinion, so to speak the reason why I find this story so interesting, and the thing that I think it proves or at least illustrates very nicely - is that compulsory "Prussian" education for everyone is now an unsustainable system in a country like Britain, and is in terminal decline here. I regard the personal travails of individuals in that system, both teachers and pupils, as symptoms of a deeper malaise, and not something that can be corrected by treating these offending individuals as one-off personal aberrations and just bashing on regardless with the same old system - except staffed instead by Jamaicans (or for that matter by Australians) at ten times the cost that it used to cost.

Even the new role played by the Media in all this just means that education, like everything else, now takes place in a completely different wider context. Telling the Media to drop dead and stop being the Media is, after all, no answer to anything.

Yet plenty of activities now proceed very nicely in this changed context, and they use the Media to do even better. State education just isn't one of them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:06 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
[0] [0]
Look and see

I've just done another of my Ain't Capitalism Great? stories over at samizdata, which has obvious educational implications, especially for Africa. And all those implications are good.

An Oxford physics professor by the name of Joshua Silver has invented a pair of adjustable spectacles which enable you to see well all your life, without ever having to visit an optician, just by twiddling a couple of knobs on the side of your spectacles every so often.

The combination of lots of bad eyesight and dreadfully inadequate optical services is a serious educational barrier in Africa. For many Africans all our arguments about phonics versus look-and-say mean very little indeed, because many Africans can't even look and see. Well, it looks as if for many of them this is about to change.

The company which Professor Silver has set up to make and market this wonder invention is called Adaptive Eyecare, and I recommend a visit to that website to learn more.

Many stories on this blog are about the fumblings and bumblings of politicians. You sense that not even they expect what they're doing to achieve very much, and the rest of us mostly assume that it's futile. But this story could not be more different.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:45 AM
Category: Technology
[0] [0]
December 20, 2002
Home schooling just do it

My profuse thanks to Michael Peach for linking to this Guardian piece on Home Schooling by Stephen Cook, which I completely missed when it first came out.

In Britain, the internet and the media have ensured that an increasing number of people are aware that there is no legal requirement to send children to school. In England and Wales, you don't even have to tell the local education authority if you home teach from the start. If you withdraw children from school, you have to tell the authority, who will probably send someone along to "inspect" what you do. In Scotland you have to get the consent, rarely refused but often delayed, of the education service.

Let me repeat the key sentence here, for the benefit of all those who still assume that here in Britain school attendance is compulsory: "In England and Wales, you don't even have to tell the local education authority if you home teach from the start."

This means, as the Department for Education and Skills discovered in a feasibility study, that there is no reliable way of counting the number of home-educated children. Estimates for England and Wales range from 12,000 to 84,000, which would be about 1% of the school population. In Scotland, the home education pressure group Schoolhouse estimates there are about 4,000.

As Cook explains well, some like to count as many home schoolers as they can find, to prove that the existing education system is doing badly, and needs to change:

One attitude within the home education movement is to play the figures up in the hope that this will lead to changes in the formal education system, regarded by some as seriously past its sell-by date.

But there is much to be said for everyone, including and especially the DES, remaining ignorant of the true numbers involved.

Another is to play the figures down for fear that a busybody state machine will see them as a threat and start to crack down.

Exactly so.

It really is a very good piece. Over on samizdata I've been ruminating on the relationship between the blogosphere and the Old Media. This piece illustrates just how far the blogosphere has to go before it seriously matches the accurate and to-the-point reporting of the Old Media at their best. It also illustrates, for all the fulminations of many of my ideological confreres, what a very good newspaper and internet operation the Guardian can often be.

Professor Alan Thomas, of the Institute of Education at London University, complains that home schooled children can become "socially isolated". But of course, the last thing many home schooling parents worry about is that their children will miss out on the socialisation process of the average school. For many, that's the whole idea. But more interestingly, Thomas reflects on how home schooled children seem to learn.

What excites him is the discovery that children at home do not learn in the same way as those in school. He says they learn in fast, unpredictable bursts which are not amenable to conventional timetabling; this, he says, could bring about "the most fundamental change in our understanding of children's learning since the advent of universal schooling in the 19th century". If the lessons and benefits of home-education could be understood and taken on board by the system, fewer people might want to do it and the system might benefit.

Speaking for myself, I too learned in unpredictable bursts. The only difference that conventional schooling made to this process was that it got more or less seriously in the way. And I love the implication that "we" are only now learning this. But he's on the right track. I suppose.

So why does it bother me that people like Thomas are starting to take a sympathetic interesting in home schooling?

Mike Fortune-Wood of Education Otherwise sums up my sense of unease, with a pronouncement quoted at the very end of the Guardian piece which is a hell of a lot creepier than he seems to realise:

"The cat's out of the bag and people know it's a legal option," he says. "All kinds of people are doing it and if it continues growing like this, the authorities are either going to have stop it or embrace it."

Stop it. Or "embrace" it. I don't know which is worse.

No, what the authorities are "going to have to do" is just keep out of it. That would be the best arrangement by far.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 AM
Category: Home education
[3] [0]
December 19, 2002
"Compulsory education is about compulsion not education"

There has been the mother of all comment battles concerning a posting yesterday by David Carr on samizdata, on the subject of the jailed mother of two truanting girls:

A mother-of-two has been jailed for failing to prevent her daughters from playing truant from school.

The Brighton woman was sentenced to seven days in prison and is only the second parent in the country to be jailed because her children skipped lessons.

Says David:

I am at a loss to understand how these two children, or the society of which they are a part, have anything to gain from being forced back into a situation where they are likely to be nothing except sullen and resentful prisoners? Very few people take the view that forcing human beings to work in state-owned factories on government-mandated projects will be in any way beneficial yet nearly everybody is entrenched in the dogmatic belief that doing the very same thing to human beings under the age of 18 will be nothing but beneficial.

This is an orthodoxy to which I once held myself: education is good, but children don't realise this. Therefore prescribed and generally agreed packages of learning must be forced on them for their own good. Is this true? I must confess that I have no ready alternatives available nor any glib answers on what parents should do instead. But I do know that I am increasingly unsettled by noxious enforcements of the kind reported above and by the quiet, persuasive ideas of people like Alice Bachini.

Compulsory education is about compulsion not education. It is a received wisdom to which I am finding it increasingly difficult to subscribe and which I believe should be revisited and re-examined at a systemic level.

The comments that this posting provoked are as contrary and as impassioned as any on samizdata that I can remember. For instance, Peter Cuthbertson:

I realise this won't move you one iota, but when this happened last time, both the truants in question started attending school again, and the mother admitted that making her face her responsibilities in such a way was the right thing to do.

If you have a principled objection to compulsory education, this won't change your mind. But clearly plenty of good can be derived from such rulings. I hope to see more of them.

"SmilinK" agrees:

Asking children if they *want* to go to school is insane. No one wants to go somewhere where they are forced to work, where they are judged by the results of said work, and where negative consequences ensue for poor effort. It's always easier to sit at home and watch the tube. Compulsory education prevents people from making that most erroneous choice, through ignorance or sloth.

To let children decide for themselves, with their still-growing brains and total inability to plan ahead, would be truly immoral. Not to mention the degradation of their lives as a result.

Mike Peach:

All a child needs is a desire to learn. All that school does from day one is tell children not to have a desire to learn but to do as they are told.

I despair of your attitude. Instead of asking the question "Do you want to go to school?" ask them if they want to learn and the answer will be resounding "Yes". That is until they have been to school and had the desire to learn knocked out of them.

I could go on and on but unfortunately the only way you will see the light is to take the "school" out of yourself.

By the way, a year ago I would have agreed with your view. However, having had my son out of school for that time now and watched him grow and develop into a rational, independent and free spirited individual I can confirm that "school" is nothing but a confidence trick and a totally illogical one at that.

And so it goes on, and on and on. Something tells me the various teams aren't going to convince one another. For what it's worth, the dominant opinion seemed to favour compulsory education, but to oppose state provision. Peach and Bachini versus the Rest. This seems to be emerging as the pattern in this corner of the blogosphere, with the surprise switch by Carr being the one change.

Me? For the moment my attitude is: Man Who Sit On Fence See Further. I'm thinking about it. Because I'm sorry, but I see genuine merit in both teams.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:13 PM
Category: Parents and children
[5] [0]
December 18, 2002
The right to compulsory education in India

Cards on the table. This is a holding post, to make sure that something goes up on December 18th, in case I don't manage anything more substantial later, during the real day itself, so to speak, during which I will be very busy.

My text and link is from and to the Hindu Times, who report on a "right" which is to be forced upon the children of India which, so goes the plan, they will have no right to resist:

New Delhi, Dec. 16. (UNI): Education for children between 6-14 years of age has become a fundamental right under the Constitution of India.

The President has given his assent to the Constitution (93rd Amendment) Bill, 2002, to this effect and the same has since been notified in the Gazette, an official press note said today.

Article 21 of the Constitution providing for fundamental right to life and personal liberty has been amended to make education up to high school a fundamental right for all citizens of India.

This amendment will be enforced from a date to be notified by the Department of Education in the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

All State governments and Union Territory administrations, will, thereafter make arrangements for compulsory education for all children throughout the country to herald India's march to hundred per cent literacy of its citizens.

It is depressing to read a report in which a right is to be enforced upon those who are supposedly to have it, without any sense that a contradiction of any sort might be involved.

And the report is also depressing because India is now one of the countries where truly voluntary education is spreading very fast. I suppose it was too good to last. Making education compulsory will corrupt it, and corrupt the "private sector" suppliers who will doubtless now be queueing up to supply the slighly less bad bits of this "service", as well as the utter rubbish product that will actually be paid for by the government.

I wonder if part of this story is that the current strongly Hindu nationalist Indian government doesn't want the Muslims of India to control their own education as much as some of them are controlling it now. Because whenever a government says that something is compulsory, they get to describe what that thing is. Maybe there are Indians or expert India watchers out there who can elucidate. Mixing religion, politics and education can result in some very hot dishes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:21 AM
Category: Compulsion
[0] [0]
December 17, 2002
Teachers who (despite themselves) support home education

Michael Peach has found himself being commented on at the TES website. That's Times Education Supplement I presume, not the Til Eulenspiegel Society. (And I imagine there may be a bit of an overlap in the concerns of these two enterprises.)

Michael reproduces a few of the derisively critical things about home education that various teachers have said at this website, but in some of these comments I find comfort:

"I had a terrible irreverent thought: these parents would be a nightmare, so thank God we don't have to deal with them."

"Thanks for directing me to this site. It does almost read like a parody. I live in an area which is awash with home educators. The current crop have kids who we can be grateful aren't in the schools. Foul mouthed, "dyslexic", arrogant and precious. A lucky escape."

"This stuff is great. home education! whatever will the government think of next to ease classroom overcrowding? Well done Tony!"

Okay, these teachers are, in my opinion and no doubt in Michael's also, arrogant, supercilious idiots. But give them some credit. I believe I detect here an understanding on their part of the grief that the abolition of the right to "education otherwise" might bring to the British teaching profession. I mean, imagine having to deal, day after day after day, with the likes of Michael Peach and his brood, full of intellectual self confidence, clever, independent minded, always wanting to do their own thing, angry as hornets at being incarcerated day after day after day. Well, the good news is, some of these not totally idiotic teachers have imagined that. And they don't like the idea.

Good. People who loathe and despise one another shouldn't be obliged to have to spend any time with each other at all. That's one of the absolute best things about freedom. If you hate somebody, you can just stay away from them.

In the coerced society, on the other hand, the society in which people have to go where they're sent and have to stay where they're put, it doesn't matter how much they hate one another, they have to go on enduring each other's company. This is one of the worst things about tyranny, educational or otherwise.

In a sane world, no teacher should be obliged to teach anyone whom he or she really did not want to teach. Educational compulsion can often be a horror for teachers, not just for pupils.

There's far more to freedom than merely having a nice washing machine, very nice though that is. And there are far worse things about tyranny than merely having to do your washing by hand, very tiresome though that is.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:14 AM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
Why bother with schools?

Well, there's nothing like a pure accident to stir up a bit of ruckus. This blog goes on the blink, so I shove a recent posting for it instead into the blazing limelight that is samizdata.net, and the comments haven't stopped. And now comes this email as well, which I reproduce now in full to encourage more:


In your blog on Samizdata that would have been on the ed blog if it had been up, you wrote:

" If the teacher has the knowledge, and the student wants it and is ready to receive it, then hand it over."

A niggling point, but one worth considering, I think, is the 'bucket theory' of education that this sentence reveals. While the teacher might have the knowledge, the student is interested in the *information* so that they can create the knowledge for their self.

I appreciate the effort you put into the ed blog - and maybe it is just the nature of the beast these days, that education is thought to equal school and teachers as an essential part of education, but please don't go down the road of bloggin about schools and teachers all the time, rather than real education. :)

just a thought,

The whole point of answering student questions when they are asked is precisely because students are not just buckets. The developing, active thinking of a student means that there are those moments when he is ready to receive a particular sort of okay information, which is why he asks for it at that moment, and why it makes sense to answer the question when it's asked.

However as a metaphor to describe a certain sort of child reacting to a certain sort of teacher, " information bucket" or even "knowledge bucket" is not that bad. Successful traditional teachers, the ones with a whiff of showbiz about them as well as old-fashioned knowledge of their subject, do indeed do something very like pour stuff into the minds of their student audiences. You get this a lot. You get people like lars saying that something doesn't happen, when what he really means is that in his opinion it shouldn't. Okay, different students receive and understand different bits of the performance, because if they are buckets then they are very complicated and rather selective buckets depending on what else they know and what they now would like to know, and also depending on which bits of their brains happen to be developing at that moment. Nevertheless, setting up a Niagara Falls of information, even of knowledge, and hoping that some of it gets caught in some of the buckets is a not totally contemptible way to educate.

As for "education equals school and teachers", well, that may not be where all or even all that much education takes place these days - as a proportion of all of it - but it's a big part of the story. And there is also the vitally important matter of what children really do learn at schools, the bad stuff I mean.

It's true that in recent days schools have, as it happens, been my main focus, but earlier I happened to be concentrating more on where computers and technology fitted into the education picture. I had a spell of focussing on maths teaching, both inside and outside schools. And there will be other little spells of interest like this focussing on all sorts of other things, many of which lars may be entertained by, and many of which he may disapprove of.

But I'm going to go on writing about schools and teachers and classrooms, (a) because it is an interesting subject in its own right, and also (b) because debates and stresses and strains within the official school system could lead to very big and very good changes in the future.

The dominant beliefs of the current education profession ever since the nineteen sixties have contained a strong libertarian strand, which is one of the very big reasons why traditional education is, for so many people, near to collapse. Remember that posting I did about what most educational researchers now believe. And maybe you also remember the two comments, from Michael Peach and from Alice Bachini, pointing out that the logic of this research is: forget about "schools" and just let children learn as and when they feel inclined, and in a far nicer place than most schools are? So the people who are now running the existing system actually don't really believe in keeping it going, and in many cases they don't believe in it at all.

However, what they do believe in is mostly too incoherent and self-contradictory to achieve anything, except harm to existing institutions.

Many "progressives", for example, believe in "freedom" but not in free markets, that is to say they believe in freedom but not in one of its most inevitable and characteristic consequences, a consequence which can only be eliminated by trampling all over freedom. Such progressives are thus incapable of devising a viable real world alternative to traditional schools, just as they are incapable of devising real world alternatives to anything else. However, the existing school system does allow them to push their anti-free-market propaganda, even as they fret about the fact that they are "pushing" anything at all, so they settle, very half-heartedly, for that. PC Prussianism, you might say.

Others react to the manifest failure of "progressive education" (i.e. the attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable) by lurching back to the old-fashioned orthodoxies, but in defiance of all that research which says, very persuasively, that there ought to be a different and better way to do things.

The only coherent opponents of traditional schooling whom I know of - the only coherent educational libertarians - are the home-schoolers and the non-schoolers, like Peach and Bachini, and, happily, many more besides.

I can perfectly understand why lars wants to turn his back on all the confusion and the bad faith, the coercion and the misery, that seethes within official schools. But I don't. I find it interesting, and I don't feel inclined to ignore it, any more than I ignored the Gulag Archipelago during the Cold War. I find it fertile soil to plant different and better ideas. If all libertarians just ignored the entire world of "official" education policy and official education research, and above all official education in the form of the official schools, they'd miss all this intellectual and (it's not too strong a word for the agonies often involved) spiritual turmoil.

So I bother with schools partly for the same reason that all subversives study the thing which they oppose. Know your enemy. But also - unlike lars? - I don't actually think that all schools are as bad as some of them are, that life at school for all children is as bad as it is for some children. I think that if there were no compulsory school attendance, and total consumer choice in education in life itself - both for parents and for children, some institutions would thrive that would look remarkably like the schools we have now. There'd be the same sort of desks all pointing towards the front, the same sort of self-important pedagogues at the front holding forth, the same sort of testing to see what if anything had been learned. The difference is that there would also be the right to ignore all this if you didn't care for it, and the right to shop around between competing suppliers if something like this would serve your purpose.

Meanwhile, I think that all over the official school desert, there are oases of goodness to be found, of the sort that have an honourable future in a far more libertarian world. I am a subversive, but I am not a revolutionary. In fact I despise and detest revolutions. Revolutions are collective acts of self-indulgence which sacrifice people on the altar of mankind. I think I've somewhat strayed from lars' objections here. But never mind. Time I stopped.

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 AM
Category: How to teach
[2] [0]
December 16, 2002
The virtue of imperfect but persistent teaching

I did a posting earlier today for this blog. No, yesterday, it's now just past midnight. But during the brief time in the afternon when I might have posted it here, this blog was not working. I believe the "server" was "down". The technology involved in all this stuff is not my strong point, although I am learning about it, slowly. So I put this posting on samizdata.net instead.

It was about a teacher who, in my opinion and if my understanding of her own classroom report was anything to go by, had done rather less well than either she or Joanne Jacobs thought she had, although I'd be the first to admit that I probably wouldn't have done any better in similar circumstances and I dare say far worse.

One of the samizdata commenters thought that the lady I had criticised ought to get the sack. I'm guessing that he has his own educational "issues" with such people. But if what I wrote here on Saturday (in the posting just below this one), about a school severely afflicted by excessively high staff turnover, is anything to go by, having imperfect teachers who nevertheless stick around and do their best is a far better policy than sacking any teacher who ever makes a mistake, however minor, or for that matter even sacking one who exhibits a persistent weakness. What if this teacher can be a sarcastic so-and-so but sure talks up a storm when she's explaining (as she was) about Gutenberg?

I recall a remark made by the head teacher in Vile Bodies, the novel by Evelyn Waugh. He greets the novel's young protagonist, who is to start teaching at his boarding school deep in the countryside, thus: "I'm well aware that no-one seeks employment at an establishment like this without a very good reason which he is anxious to conceal." Something like that. Most of us can remember times when we've learned things from most unlikely and often severely imperfect and very nasty people.

I hope that the teacher whom I criticised over on samizdata does what I'm sure her pupils are doing, despite any mistakes that she may or may not be making (after all this was only my opinion), which is: learn, and improve, and get a bit smarter at what she's doing, day by day. If what I have written here about the educational value of blogging to the blogger is true, then she definitely will.

Maybe she'll read my samizdata posting. And maybe she'll even learn something from me and from those commenters about how to do her job a little bit better, although of that I am less confident. Personally I hate being criticised, especially when the criticism is constructive.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 AM
Category: How to teach
[0] [0]
December 14, 2002
The Sheila who couldn't cope

The December 14th issue of The Week, the British magazine which reports on what the rest of British (and some non-British) media have been saying, reckoned that an extraordinary article by one Kate Gibbs, first published in the Evening Standard (they don't say which day), was worth reproducing in full. Ms Gibbs is an Australian teacher who "thought she could handle even the most disruptive pupils". But then she had a go at teaching in one of the Government's new "flagship" City Academy schools, this one being in North London, hence the Evening Standard's interest. (I could find no trace of this piece, or about this particular Kate Gibbs, or about Grieg City Academy on line, so no link I'm afraid.)

It's a predictable saga of testosterone-fuelled insubordination, insults, rape threats, and consequent non-education, the minority of pupils who actually wanted to learn something being the main victims, along with the teaching staff of course. Money had been thrown about in abundance, but the government's attempt to get a grip on the place, had, for the time being anyway, only made matters worse.

Ms Gibbs' piece abounds with those military comparisons that always seem to crop up whenever state education is now discussed, and her second last paragraph provides further evidence of the Sovietisation of British state education, this time in the form of the idiotic paperwork that state teachers must all now endure. You sense that the staff might have been able to cope, if it wasn't for all their superiors looming over them, trying to make absolutely sure that they were coping.

I soon understood something about why teachers did not want to teach there. They were in open revolt at the crushing paperwork burden imposed on them by management, and what they called "the overbureaucratised Academy". Pigeon holes were stuffed daily with memorandums, student profiles, new agendas and forms to fill out to prove you had been setting homework and marking books. They complained of losing Sundays to lesson plans and evaluations that nobody read. From what I could see, most teachers could not wait to leave. The students, needless to say, picked up on this. They told me that the extraordinarily high staff turnover while I was there, five permanent staff resigned on one day made them feel rejected. They longed for continuity, for someone to attach to. Usually, I reflected, the questions I would be asked as a 25-year-old teacher were: "Do you have a boyfriend, Miss?" Or "Do you think he's fit, Miss?" But at Grieg City Academy, it was always one question: "Will you be here tomorrow, Miss?"

And then the last paragraph reveals that there very soon came a day when she decided that she wouldn't be.

By the end of my second week, I had lost my voice and was sick in bed with bronchitis. On the following Monday, I phoned to say I would not be coming back. As I put down the phone, I experienced a pang of guilt for the few good students I was letting down. But mainly I felt overwhelming relief. It's extraordinary to think you can plough £20m into a school and actually make things worse. It will take time and a lot more than money to transform Grieg City Academy.

Aussies have a formidable reputation in London for being just plain better at what they do more hardworking, more efficient, smarter, tougher than the local average. If an Aussie Sheila can't cope in one of these places, it must truly be in a bad way.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
[0] [0]
December 13, 2002
The Brains Trust on educational Sovietisation

For a measured view of new British government proposals to entend the powers of Devil Head Teachers to discipline devil-parents for the transgressions of their devil-children, you need look no further than the Brains Trust:

The government has today announced plans to radically extend the role of state school heads, and give them increased powers over parents in an attempt to improve public discipline.

New ideas involve raising the profile of school heads in their community by a series of new measures. These include detaining parents after school for an hour if their children are "too cheeky by half", giving 100 lines to any parent seen dropping litter in the street within sight of their child, and fining parents for instances of repetitive failure to attend parent-teacher meetings or school concerts. Heads will also be expected to enforce traffic calming measures within a two-mile radius of the school. Their powers being extended to fine mothers for "bad parking" and fathers for "driving aggressively" in any German-manufactured car. Each school will retain the revenues gained from the fines levied, and will be allowed to spend them on building repairs and cream cakes for the staff room.

The serious point here is that a basically malfunctioning system is conferring ever more draconian powers on the latest group of people who are being begged to save it, in this case Head Teachers.

I mean it about Sovietisation. In the old USSR there was an entire class of management, just below the Polibureau, with powers and privileges fit for Roman Emperors, whose basic task was to Make The Bloody System Work. That legendary guy who ran the Soviet space programme was one of these superior beings. So was the famed Soviet Film Supremo Sergei Bondarchuk, as was Evgeny Mravinsky, the legendary long-time boss of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, a favourite Soviet-era super-achiever of mine. For a while, the best of such monsters do keep things semi-achieving, although at a frightful cost in frayed nerves and wrecked lives. (I've often wondered what happened to Leningrad POers who persistently played wrong notes.) But eventually the system collapses.

And another Merry Christmas to you all. My, I am in a nice mood today. Still, it's nearly the weekend, and then you'll all be able to run about and do as you please.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[1] [0]
Years of education equals money

One of my favorite recent blogger discoveries is Ted Barlow. Like all good bloggers, he convinces you that he is telling it as he truly sees it, which made this slice of wisdom, from his piece called "A few things I've learned working in market research" all the more depressing:

- The correlation between income and education is one of the strongest Ive ever seen in social science. It forced me to believe that parents who force their whiny children to stay in high school and go to college are doing their kids a great favor.

What depresses me is that I bet you anything this is true, at any rate the correlation. Ted Barlow says it, and so do a thousand other people. We live in a hideously credential-dominated society.

I suppose this comes of there being so many of us. As individuals, if we want to earn lots of money, we have to be constantly impressing strangers, and doing it quickly. That is to say, the impressing bit has to be doable quickly. It doesn't matter how long we stress and strain to prepare the impressive thing itself. And employers who want to get very rich can't only be making use of people they already know, or always be going to the immense trouble of finding out all about the real merits of the people they are considering employing. No way would exams disappear in a totally free educational market, where children were allowed to leave school at zero and go and work down coal mines or up chimneys if they wanted to. There'd be exams in that, too.

So, you get this self-fulfilling prophecy carved into the concrete foundations of our society. Clever people do lots of "education". Stupid people don't. It becomes true. If you drop out, you are stupid, because you are condemning yourself to a lifetime of either being asked why you dropped out so early and not having a really smooth answer, or of not applying for any of those jobs where you need a smooth answer. Result, you really do get your hands on a lot less money. It's true in the same kind of way that being a Soviet dissident meant that you really were crazy, because only a crazy person would take a serious public swipe at the government of the USSR.

And, before the commenters start in, it's even true despite the fact that "school leavers" are the very definition of stupidity. Despite that, it remains true that the longer you delay becoming a school leaver, the cleverer you nevertheless must be underneath all the stupidity, and the more they pay you, despite all your school acquired stupidity.

I remember being very scornful when I first learned about how the druids used to do upward social mobility by lying in a coffin full of ice-cold water all night with only their noses above water, composing Druidic poetry. Thank goodness we don't do that kind of thing now, I thought. Then I thought some more.

I wonder, if I keep this blog going for five solid years, with something here every Monday to Friday, with maybe extra somethings at the weekend, will that count as a qualification? Probably not. Doesn't show enough willingness to knuckle under and do as I'm told. I didn't know when I began it that it might count as a qualification, therefore it wouldn't. Only when it is ordained from on high that blogging can count as a course credit, will it do so. And my infinitely depressing point here is: this makes sense.

And a Merry Christmas to you all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:26 AM
Category: Economics of education
[3] [0]
December 12, 2002
Literacy Links and a potential row

John Ray has emailed me with a couple of literacy links. These are this link, and this link.

Comments on my cryptic link question were two-to-one against, if I remember it right, so let me expand a little.

Both these links are attempts to sum up - how accurately I am incapable of judging, but presumably John Ray reckons they're okay - the findings of "expert research" on the subject of how children can best learn to be literate.

What struck me about them was that both abound with trigger phrases which, in my brief experience of the opinions of the "synthetic phonics" crowd, would have them cursing and ranting and biting the wallpaper with rage, that is to say criticising very severely. I have in mind phrases like (in Link One) "mechanically decoding words", "interaction among the reader, the text, and the context" (my italics), and (in Link Two) "authentic situation", "variety of reading strategies", "use of graphic aids". There's the making of a great row here, if I can stir it up.

Incidentally, since starting this edu-blog, I have become acutely aware that, when one pontificates about education and especially when one pontificates about literacy, spelling mistakes count twice. So let it be duly noted that Link One accuses "traditional education" of upholding the idea that a child is a vessel who receives knowledge from "extertnal" sources. Traditional education also upholds the idea of not making crass spelling mistakes like that on web-pages about literacy.

Here's what I think about this potential row.

If you do truly contrive what these two Links say you should, then all will probably be well. However, there is a distinct air of self-fulfilling prophecy about it all. What these "new researchers" are saying is that, in the present context (and they do love a good context), this is what the successful readers and writers of now - and thus the movers and shakers of the future - are now doing. Well, yes. But that doesn't mean that trying to get every child to behave like this is now the best way to teach literacy to everybody. Telling some overloaded state-employed hack-teacher to create a "meaningful social environment" in which every child in sight is vigorously pursuing his own learning strategy is, in the current context (i.e. compulsory state-run school attendance), a recipe for anomic chaos, for twelve-year-old ignoramuses sitting in the corner banging their heads against the wall while their happier contemporaries are out in the streets buying and selling drugs by similarly illiterate means. If you want to make old-school schools work properly, you have to run them like Model T assembly lines. You have to isolate the single most important process involved in learning to read and write (but especially to read), which is surely something extremely like "mechanically decoding words", and get that right. You have to make children receive knowledge from an external source, namely your hardworking, repetitious, din-it-into-them self. The rest (i.e. Nobel Prizes, jobs with the UN or with Microsoft) may or may not follow, but that at least gives it a fighting chance.

Here, in short, is one of those many, many situations where the best could be the deadly enemy of the adequate. And adequate is absolutely what literacy teaching, in the Anglo-Saxon world, now, for a growing minority, is not.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 AM
Category: Literacy
[2] [0]
December 11, 2002
Japanese questions

A comment was posted in connection with learning Japanese which is unlikely to be read by anyone other than me, unless I accord it the privilege of a new posting, so here it is:

Hello Brian,


I am currently studying Japanese and have learned some of the language so far and all of the hiragana. I wanted to start learning Katakana so I began searching for what I could find on the internet and I ran across your page. I really like it, you've done well.

This reminds me of a truly wondrous recent moment on British TV when the late great Spike Milligan, then still (just about) alive, was being subjected to one of those lifetime achievement showbiz-fests. They got the tottering Spike up onto the platform, and read out an enthusiastically supportive and grateful letter from one of his long-time celebrity fans, the Prince of Wales. Growled Spike without missing a beat: "Grovelling bastard."

Not fair. Thank you for your kind words Aaron. Ah, I see that you want me to do something for you.

I was wondering if you could send me a list of as many katakana as you could, or know of where I might find them. If you don't have the time or just don't feel like it please write back and just write no in the subject.

Thank you so much for all your help


Think nothing of it my dear chap.

I'm afraid I had to email Aaron to the effect that I didn't understand the question, but that if I flagged up his comment in this new posting maybe someone else would, and might be able and willing to help. Any offers? I've told him to keep his eye on the comments to this.

Quite a lot of education seems to proceed like this nowadays, with complicated email questions (in this case a comment on a blog) to busy and important personages such as myself, on the off chance of the odd useful answer. My Libertarian Alliance colleague Chris Tame always sends back a very bad-tempered email to these sorts of requests, to the effect that he has no intention of writing other people's undergraduate essays for them, or some such. But I see no very great harm in this sort of thing. I mean, if you want to know the answer to something, what's wrong with asking? I do it myself all the time.

For instance, what is a hiragana, and in what way does it differ from a Katakana? And does the small h and the Big K signify anything except the lamentable decline in educational standards among students these days? Answers in the comments box please.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:52 PM
Category: Languages
[2] [0]
December 10, 2002
An immigration official who keeps on learning

I am gradually tuning in to which Brit-blogs are good sources on British educational matters. Thanks to a very acute comment on this piece by me at Samizdata, I learned of Junius. Properly I mean. I'd heard the name. Now I'll be reading the blog. He's a University lecturer of some sort, and in due course I'll learn what sort. Recommended. See this for example.

I followed Junius to BritishSpin, who has stopped blogging, it seems. And at BritishSpin I found this, a story about the sublimely predictable "Individual Learning Accounts" screw-up, a story which, BritishSpin tells us, is told at greater length by Iain Coleman. Indeed it is. Also recommendeed, as are BritishSpin's comments on it.

I go to the Iain Coleman home page to find out who and what he is, and there I find this, a truly charming education story or to be more exact, self-education story.

Going to big international conferences, it's quite common to end up getting the same plane flight as a lot of other people going to the same place, many of them identifiable by the long poster tubes in their carry-on luggage. This trip was no exception: the aircraft was full of geophysics bods of every stripe, from space physicists to oceanographers.

Now it's been a few years since my last US trip, and I'd forgotten how desperately slow and bureaucratic the immigration system is. We spent ages going through passport control, mainly because the officials felt the need to have a little personal chat with every single person. That's not what you need after ten hours on a 747, no matter how pleasant the flight (and it must be said that BA were excellent).

When it was my turn, the customs chap asked me why I was visiting the US. "Attending a scientific conference," I replied. He then proceeded to ask me all about my field (space plasma physics), how we gather data (in situ from spacecraft measurements, no samples brought to Earth), or ground-based remote sensing) and so on. Then he waved me through.

Talking to my colleagues afterwards, it transpired that every one of them had been asked a series of detailed questions about their own fields, and nothing at all about anything else that an immigration official might reasonably take a professional interest in. In the time it took us to be admitted to America, this guy had effectively got a mini-tutorial in every single branch of geophysics. He's probably not really supposed to take advantage of his position to further his own scientific education, but I approve nonetheless.

Inevitably, one of the commenters says that this was more likely to be something to do with US national security, rather than self-education. Yes. And the guy was probably not listening at all, just studying Coleman's upper lip for sweat or stalling while some spooky machine searched his luggage or his bodily orifices. But I prefer Coleman's interpretation. And even if he's wrong, I find it charming that, educator that he is, education is what he saw going on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
December 09, 2002
How Eugene Volokh paid for his education

Here's an interesting man who had an interesting education:

Like most immigrants, the Volokhs had to begin again in the U.S. Vladimir eventually worked his way back up from computer operator to programming and often took his sons to work during school vacations.

By the time Eugene was 12, he was put on the payroll at the company his father worked for. That same year, he adapted an accounting utility program Vladimir had written for more generalized use. Some of the sizeable profits from this new product funded Anne Volokh's Movieline magazine.

"I have heard, 'Oh, the Volokhs got so successful so fast, it must have been drug money,'" laughs Anne. "But actually it was the software."

Eugene continued earning money as a programmer all through college, and in fact is still a partner in the small software company he and his father started.

He entered UCLA as a freshman when he was 12, usually getting dropped off by his father in the morning, then taking the bus to his programming job in the afternoon. Volokh says that entering college and the work world while still a child wasn't really a huge adjustment, though his boss did at one point have to ask him to please stop all that running through the halls -- people on the floor below were complaining about noise.

This reminds me of something I remember reading in a Peter Drucker book once, which is that computers have provided something never provided before by our civilisation: paying jobs for mathematicians besides being maths teachers.

Eugene Volokh, however, does now teach, but law rather than maths. This is his blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:11 PM
Category: Technology
[0] [0]
December 08, 2002
Student blogging?

I'm becoming intrigued by the educational value of blogging, to me. As for you, if you learn things then I'm happy for you, very happy. Learn away. But I'm struck by how much I'm learning. It's a lot more, I'm certain, than if I had merely read lots of stuff, including lots of stuff on other blogs.

When I was a student I could never get on top of that note-taking summary-writing business that students are supposed to do, and which good students presumably do do. I was too disorganised and too lazy. I only began writing things down systematically when someone else, or I myself, was going to publish them. That way I did the work, and I could also go back and read past efforts, confident that I would at least be able to find them, if not of their high quality.

For many years it was very sporadic, and horribly unwieldy. It was still far too much like hard work, bashing the stuff into length and style formats which now seem absurdly rigid. I couldn't just scribble things out, and publish them with a few keystrokes.

Writing notes about what one is supposed to be learning is, of course, a fundamental educational procedure. Writing something down obliges one to engage with what one is supposedly learning, and it makes self-deception about what one really has learned a lot harder. Writing transfers what one has temporarily absorbed in one brain location and inscribes it rather more permanently into another brain location, and if the writing can easily be read again later, the lesson can really sink in.

Thus it is that blogging is an immensely potent educational tool, for the blogger. If you are by nature not very good at keeping track of notes on paper, or even on your hard disk, and you nevertheless want to make a decent fist of studenthood, try blogging. If you are all that, and you are also something of a show-off, who wilts when there's no-one else to impress besides one crusty old teacher who has heard it all before a hundred times, try blogging. You never know how many admiring readers (the other kind will surely soon find other things to read) you might acquire, perhaps dozens. Perhaps only other students doing the exact same course as you, perhaps students doing a similar course all over the world, perhaps thousands who love your unconscious humour. Who knows?

Are there any student bloggers? I don't mean students who are fighting battles about political correctness and such like with their educational masters, or in general complaining about their educational misfortunes, interesting and valuable though that can surely be. I mean people using blogging to learn whatever they are trying to learn, by keeping an intellectual diary of lectures, seminars and so forth, emphasising ideas which they found especially striking, perhaps linking to their own fully written out essays. Is anyone doing that? If so, who is the youngest person doing it?

Who, in general, on any subject, is the youngest blogger?

As I find myself saying here quite a lot: Anyone?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:20 PM
Category: Technology
[4] [0]
December 07, 2002
Cryptic comedy links

Daryl Cobranchi thinks that this is funny. I agree.

Question: are cryptic links like this, Instapundit style, a good thing?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:05 PM
Category: Home education
[3] [0]
Now that's a teacher

An interesting insight into the mind of a teacher, from fellow Brit-blogger Natalie Solent:

My husband spent a memorable few seconds yesterday travelling at speed down the motorway in his car. Sideways. While acting, as he put it, "as a hood ornament for a lorry."

Life's rich tapestry, eh? No one was hurt and we are fully insured, but it's all a bit of a bleah. I am now stuck home waiting for a loan car and a tow-truck to take our poor little Fiesta to hospital and possible euthanasia.

My husband said an interesting thing about his thoughts while being carried along. He didn't pray. He didn't think of his family. He's a teacher and he spends some of his time saying and even more time thinking, "Stop that! You're doing something stupid." And that's what he tried to convey telepathically to the driver of the lorry.

As I say when writing one of my "wonders of capitalism" pieces over at Samizdata, I'm impressed. A man who'll try to teach his way out of a pickle like that really is a teacher. I'm not a Christian, but if I were I might surmise that God was also impressed and did the necessary, despite not of this occasion having been asked.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:44 AM
Category: This and that
[0] [0]
December 06, 2002
The academic origin of Silicon Valley

Here are two theories about the relationship between universities and economic development:

Theory One: Economic development causes universities. The idea that paying energetic young people to sit around talking about post-modernism is good for the economy is so far beneath beneath contempt it needn't even be discussed. The relationship is like that between the husband being rich and the wife having a diamond necklace. His wife has the necklace because he can afford it. The necklace absolutely does not make him any richer. Quite the reverse.

Theory Two: Good science and technology universities can cause economic development.

In his book Cities in Civilization (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1998), Peter Hall identifies the key fact that created Silicon Valley as the move by one academic, Frederick Terman, to Stanford University (p. 427), in 1924:

Completing his Ph.D., Terman accepted a faculty position at MIT. But, before this, he was stricken with tuberculosis while visiting his family and spent the year 1924 in bed; he stayed at Palo Alto for his health, and became a professor of 'Radio Engineering' at Stanford.

Hall then quotes Silicon Valley Feaver: Growth of High-Technology Culture by E. M. Rogers and J. K. Larsen (Basic Books, New York, 1984. p. 31):

Thus, but for the fickle fact of being struck with a serious illness, Fred Terman would probably have become the godfather of Boston's Route 128, instead of its counterpart in Santa Clara County. And without Fred Terman, Silicon Valley might never have happened.

Says Hall:

It is not an exaggerated verdict: his role as godfather of the incipient industry was crucial, and without it the rest of the story would probably never have taken place.

Hall then quotes M. S. Malone's book The Big Score: The Billion-Dollar Story of Silicon Valley (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1985, pp. 20-21):

During his tenure as head of the communications laboratory (1924-45), it was the focal point of the college careers of many bright young scientific minds on campus (much as the computer lab is to 'hackers' now). Because of this, until the end of the Second World War and Terman's promotion to dean, the Stanford communications lab was the heart of technological innovation on the West Coast. By the time Terman moved on, the ties between Stanford and the surrounding electronics industry were so strong that the university was all but guaranteed its present role of providing apprenticeship to each generation of high-tech leaders.

In Hall's next few paragraphs student names like "Hewlett" and "Packard" figure prominently.

And then another fluke happened. Hall again (p. 429):

At this time Stanford's main problem was how to convert university land into money, since the original Stanford land gift forbade the sale of any part of the 880-acre Farm. Terman, by now vice-president, and Wallace Sterling, president, hit upon the idea of a high-technology industrial park. The 660-acre Stanford Industrial Park, created in 1951, was the first of its kind; Terman called it 'Stanford's secret weapon'. Leases, necessary because of the injunction against selling, were granted to high-technology firms; originally the scheme was just a means of making money, but soon the idea developed of technology transfer from the university to industry.

Let me say it again, when Hall asks himself what the key event was that make Silicon Valley into what it became, he says: Terman. He even argues that the other candidate event, so to speak, the move by William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, from Raytheon in Boston to Silicon Valley in 1954. Hall reckons that, one way or another, transistor knowledge would have found its way to Silicon Valley anyway, with or without Shockley. The momentum of Silicon Valley, by then, was simply irresistible.

Having both contrived and to some extent lucked its way to the "Science Park" formula, Stanford University has now become a model for similar developments all over the world, not least here in Britain. (Thanks to John Ray for the link to this story.)

There, we sat in a modern conference room, indistinguishable from its counterparts in Santa Clara or Austin, and listened to a presentation by Powderject Ltd. on its new yellow fever and Hepatitis B vaccines and non-invasive powdered vaccine injectors. Some of the technology was more sophisticated than anything found at largest U.S. pharmaceuticals (one of which will likely buy Powderject any day now).

Powderject is, as we learned that morning, only one of dozens of new start-ups being backed by Oxford's own venture capital operation, called ISIS Innovation Ltd. Most are biotech, arising from the school's world-class chemistry and biology programs.

We in Silicon Valley like to pride ourselves in having no past, as if would impede our forward progress. But Oxford, which would seem to have the biggest legacy problem imaginable, also appears to found a way to build off that past, to even use it as a springboard into the future.

And if you follow that link, who do you find at the end of it, writing this ABC News story? A certain Michael S. Malone. That's right, the same man whose 1985 book is quoted in Cities in Civilization. This guy has had his teeth sunk into this Science Park story for the best part of two decades. If the example of Silicon Valley is now there for all the world to follow, it's because of people like Malone, who wrote the Silicon Valley story up in the first place.

This Oxford science park could be looking like a British success story in the making, except that, according to Malone, the European Union may be about to regulate it out of existence. But now I'm straying from my core curriculum.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:15 AM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
December 05, 2002
Go Jo!

Joanne Jacobs has some particularly choice stuff up just now. This quote, for example:

Mainstream art education begins with the assumption that art is inherently valuable, whereas VCAE [visual culture art education] assumes that visual representations are sites of ideological struggle that can be as deplorable as they can be praiseworthy. The starting point [for VCAE] is not the prescribed inclusive canon of the institutionalized art world, but students' own cultural experience. A major goal is empowerment in relation to the pressures and processes of contemporary image-makers, mostly those who work on behalf of corporate capitalism, not the cherishing of artistic traditions and the valuing of artistic experimentation. The basic orientation is to understand, not to celebrate.

There you have it, the disaster that is the "progressive movement" in education: you are free to think as I tell you to think. What if the "students' own cultural experience" causes them to want to "celebrate" capitalism?

Or how about this?:

The point of a virtual school is that students and their parents have the flexibility to organize their school hours. Students enrolled in the California Virtual Academy, which uses Bill Bennett's K12 program, for example, must still record attendance and instructional minutes as if they were going to class 175 days, on a Monday-Friday schedule. So even when children complete lessons on Saturday or do two lessons in one day to compensate for a field trip, the official K12 record must reflect 175 school days, or the charter school will not get paid-regardless of how many instructional minutes the child completes.

As Joanne says:

The Blob will do its best to regulate its competition. And the power to regulate is the power to destroy.

Are you listening, all you massed ranks of British education voucher freaks? Education vouchers means the government deciding what education is. And once they've decided that, they'll have those home-schoolers, and home-unschoolers right in their cross hairs.

And this is probably my favourite:

... We had to go around and talk about at least one way in which we have been/are oppressed. When my turn came up, and I answered that I have never been oppressed, the instructor corrected me, saying that I must have been, as I'm female. I persisted, saying that being female has never been anything short of a blessing for me. The instructor was relentless, insisting that I was necessarily oppressed at one point in my life. The instructor asked to speak with me after class. He was visibly shaken and angry. He told me that my classroom behavior was disruptive

and this next bit didn't make sense to me Joanne, sorry, copying error? Never mind, it's still terrific as soon as it gets back to making sense again

and that I would be kicked out of class and would thereby lose my job and my housing for the next year unless I learned to be more cooperative.

If I say you are oppressed by the male hegemony, young lady, then you are oppressed! Too right, mate.

I love the internet. I wonder if this ass knows what an ass he has made of himself, and how many, many people, all over the Anglosphere and beyond are now laughing at him.

As we say over at Samizdata, what a wanker.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:29 PM
Category: Blogging
[1] [0]
History in Harpenden and drama in Welwyn

Mark Holland emails thus:

My girlfriend is a primary school teacher at a very good (state) school in Harpenden Hertfordshire. The other evening she was helping out her friend and fellow teacher who is the history co-ordinator. I was asking about the (national curriculum - older infants) subjects covered and one is something like "Great Britain since 1948". We all looked at each other wondering what was significant about 1948 given all the other possible juicy historical dates around then. We tracked it down to being when the Empire Windrush arrived in port. Draw your own conclusions.

Not all BEdBlog readers will get that reference. The Windrush was the ship that brought the first big batch of post-war coloured immigrants to Britain from the West Indies.

Also tonight I was out at my evening class and whilst talking to some friends discovered that their kids' school (in Welwyn) play is next week. One child needs an oil drum costume! Funny Nativity I said. No it's some environmental bollocks called "and then came man" about the "destruction of the Earth". Jeez. It ties right in with the opinion as fact geography mentioned in the Telegraph the other week.

I'm fed up with the brain washing.

Thanks very much for this Mark. Aside from the potential Windrush confusion - emailers, please remember that blogs such as this are read by a global readership, not a merely local one this is everything a guest email to BEdBlog should be, full of facts and local detail. The pompous abstractions of national education policy bore me dreadfully, even if I agree with the policies being proclaimed. Specifics like this are a breath of fresh air by comparison, even if, as here, the news is rather dispiriting.

My perfect email to BEdBlog would contain news of an educational initiative that I admire, and which I could assist merely by passing on the news of its existence, for example by steering new helpers or pupils or financial assistance towards it. Dream on Brian. But dreams dreamt aloud can sometimes come true. Meanwhile, Mark's report will do nicely. Thanks again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:01 AM
Category: History
[0] [0]
December 04, 2002
Piglets with snouts in public trough protest about having to pay (a bit)

BEdBlog readers have been getting far less sense out of me than they should have on the subject of how University education should be paid for. So let I'll let Perry de Havilland of Samizdata take up the slack for me:

Thousands of British students have gathered in London today in order to protest against a Government proposal to introduce university top-up fees. Coming from across the UK, they started marching at noon today (I am pleased to report it is pissing down with rain) in protest against a Government plan to require students to pay for at least some of their own university education.

Thank you Perry. Go there and read it all. (And watch that Samizdata hit rate go through the roof! ha ha.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:31 PM
Category: Free market reforms
[0] [0]
Sports gangs

I have already reported on some schemes on both sides of the Atlantic to bring rowdy and uncivilised boys into closer touch with the kind of good men they might become, rather than the other kind. Here is another such scheme. The US Football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, has a scheme to reward "socially disadvantaged" youths with tickets to games, if they behave themselves better. This is the "Honor Rows Program".

In Britain there is a crisis of youthful male energy, caused by the decline of team sports at schools. School sports grounds are now being relentlessly sold off for other more immediately profitable uses, and as the schools diminish into mere exam-passing machines, or worse, it seems to me that other more successful institutions in our society could and should be taking up the educational slack.

In Britain the obvious candidates are the big soccer clubs. These enterprises have traditionally tended to concentrate on their one obsession, winning first team soccer games. But you have only to think of the names of some of the big continental European soccer teams "Sporting" Lisbon, "Athletico" Madrid to realise that it doesn't have to be like this. And think of the big soccer team based in the Italian city of Turin. It's simply called "Juventus", which presumably means "Youth", or something very like it. It's nick-name - "Juve" - is even the same as the American slang word for a juvenile correctional institution.

Is anyone aware of any of the big British Football clubs Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and so on doing anything along these lines? (My fellow Samizdata writer David Carr is a big Chelsea fan. Maybe he knows something about this.) Obviously all these clubs have their "youth teams", but by the nature of things, the majority of the boys involved in such efforts tend not to make it into big-time professional soccer. So it would make sense for the clubs, if their youth team set-ups are to be attractive to the promising boys they want to attract, to make sure that the disappointed ones get a soft landing into adulthood, rather than just a hideous disappointment-for-life.

As the schools retreat to their (literally in this case) core curriculum, other institutions that are doing better could and should expand into this gaping educational void.

For what else is a sports team if not a socially acceptable re-invention of the youthful gang? You want to get rid of bad gangs? Set up other gangs, which do all that the bad gangs do that's fun (basically have exciting battles with the other gangs) but which break rather fewer of the rules of adult society.

The idea that boys can somehow be persuaded to refrain entirely from being boys for the duration is, by comparison, very foolish.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:48 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
[0] [0]
Alice in Cyberland

From Alice Bachini, who is getting very, very good:

The Blowhards regular TV Alerts blog (of which the latest example here) is a brilliant voice in the pro-TV universe. If all those TV-is-evilcationalists could just see this, they would stop arguing that TV is bad for people and contains no useful knowledge. Oh no, they wouldn't, those people are totally irrational anyway. I forgot.

Anyway, it's not just TV that's educational. So is the internet. Including blogs, like this other Blowhard epic monster-blog which is basically a complete lesson in art and art history. Except, it's a lesson by a free-thinking individual, rather than the product of some socialist college somewhere, so it makes sense and provides actual interest (and more, in fact).

I can hardly believe it. I have spent my entire life bemoaning the extreme difficulty of finding reliable sources of useful information, and here they are now at the end of a mouse. It's amazing. What chance before of finding an informed intelligent art-historian one can actually take seriously and whose ideas one can actually trust to contain some sense, in the meanderings of everyday life? Pretty minimal, I'd say.

And you don't have to spend three years at college to access it, either. This is how universities will die, if they aren't careful. People are not so dumb that they will value pieces of paper over real knowledge forever.

I do love a good sting in the tail.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:37 AM
Category: Technology
[0] [0]
December 03, 2002
John Holt

If I had to name a single person who made me interested in education to the point where I would one day decide to start an education blog, that person would be John Holt. This interview is a good start in understanding Holt's way of thinking.

What struck me most about Holt when I first read him was that he was just as opposed to the bogus liberation of "progressive" ideas as then mostly understood, as he was to what I have been describing in this blog as the "Prussian" approach.

from many experiences during this time I began to see, in the early '70s, slowly and reluctantly, but ever more surely, that the movement for school reform was mostly a fad and an illusion. Very few people, inside the schools or out, were willing to support or even tolerate giving more freedom, choice, and self-direction to children. Of the very few who were, most were doing so not because they believed that children really wanted and could be trusted to find out about the world, but because they thought that giving children some of the appearances of freedom (allowing them to wear old clothes, run around, shout, write on the wall, etc.) was a clever way of getting them to do what the school had wanted all along - to learn those school subjects, get into a good college, etc. Freedom was not a serious way of living and working, but only a trick, a "motivational device." When it did not quickly bring the wanted results, the educators gave it up without a thought and without regret.

The trouble with the "progressives" of the 1970s was that, although strongly inclined towards contriving more freedom for children, they tended simultaneously to be opposed to freedom for adults. This was because most of them had a blind spot about capitalism, which is the economic system that free people will always contrive if allowed to, and which free children would also have participated in, if allowed to. Yet most of these progressives wanted children to be "free" only to challenge capitalism, never to participate enthusiastically in it. So, the progressives faced a choice. Was it to be freedom for both adults and children, or freedom for neither? They mostly chose: neither. They satisfied themselves with replacing the old curricular orthodoxies with new orthodoxies of the kind they preferred.

A doctrinaire pro-capitalist enthusiast like me faces a similar problem. What if children want, of their own free will and despite anything I say to them, to become fervent anti-capitalists, perhaps because of all those other things that others have said to them? What do I do about that?

I also ask: what happened to John Holt? And what has happened to his ideas? Do the de-schoolers, the un-schoolers, the home-schoolers still revere him, or do many of them have their doubts? Holt died about a decade ago, I believe. Does the internet offer any informed yet serious or even severe criticisms of his ideas?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:59 PM
Category: Parents and children
[2] [0]
December 02, 2002
What sort of animal are we?

I've just done a(nother) posting over at Samizdata about a dog-training lady by the name of Jan Fennell. Fennell, in her book The Dog Listener makes much of the similarities between her work and that of Monty Roberts, "the man who listens to horses". Both these "trainers" started out by asking about the nature of the species they were dealing with. Roberts started with horse nature, and Fennell with dog nature. (Basically, horses are herd animals, and dogs are pack animals.) And then they each communicated with their animals by trying to communicate the way a horse communicates with other horses in the herd, and the way dogs do in their dog pack.

My question is: what sort of animal is a human child? What behavioural signals does a human child naturally respond to? Natalie Solent, in connection with her recollections of starting out as a teacher (in a comment here on this), recalled being told "never turn your back on them". Is that merely war psychology as she implied, or is that perhaps a more basic human behavioural signal?

The problem that we as humans have in thinking of our fellow humans in this way is that, being in the thick of human society ourselves, we are unable to get outside it, and see it the way a psychologist of another species, so to speak, would see us. I'm sure that if I were a high IQ spider, or a high IQ dog, say, I would observe obvious things that humans do with each other that make them utterly distinct from spiders and dogs - things which we humans don't find it easy to notice, the way we can register spider nature or dog nature.

Another way of phrasing the same question is to ask: what is it that gives some teachers "natural" authority? Why will children queue up to learn from one teacher and hang on his or her every word, while refusing to attend to another unless coerced or terrorised?

The debate about "freedom for children", "taking children seriously" and so on, seems to hinge on the view taken by the critics of such notions that they involve treating children as something different from what they truly are. To "give" children "too much" freedom is said to violate their essential nature. That is how it appears from the anti side. Yet for the pro-freedom team (which includes me) letting children do things their way seems to us precisely to be working with the grain of their nature, rather than against it.

I realise that knowledge is power, and that power can be used both to do good and to do harm. The teacher who knows all about child nature could then shamelessly manipulate or indoctrinate or brainwash his charges. However, it's worth remembering, in this connnection, that Monty Roberts started listening to horses precisely so that he could persuade them to obey him without him torturing them, in the manner of the horse trainers (horse "breakers") he seeks to influence and/or supplant. Fennell's passion is learning to be the kind of dog owner who does not drive her dogs crazy but who instead makes a happy life both for herself and for them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:13 PM
Category: Parents and children
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December 01, 2002
Univerzzzzzzity Finanzzzzzzz

I just cannot get myself into a stew about university financing. I know I probably should, and maybe someone will say something that eventually wakes me up. Meanwhile, if you are already excited about this, go to Liberty Log, where there's a link to a speech by the University of St Andrews Master and Deputy Principal Professor Colin Vincent, containing the suggestion that the government should go on paying for everything, but that the posh universities, like St Andrews, should get a bigger slice of the pie.

Alex Singleton says: "I can't see the rest of the country supporting it."

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:16 PM
Category: Higher educationPolitics
[1] [0]
Those were the days

For all of my readers who enjoy being told just how precipitately Western Civilisation has been collapsing lately, here is an 1895 8th Grade Final Exam from Salina, Kansas. Thanks to fellow Samizdata scribe Dale Amon for the link.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:50 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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