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Chronological Archive • July 2003
July 31, 2003
Well does it?

I don't generally pay the full wack for books. I wait until I see good stuff in the remainder shops. But I've made an exception for this book, reviewed by J. R. Shackleton in Economic Affairs (the Journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs – Vol. 23 No. 2 – June 2003 – paper only so far as I am aware):

This is a good and timely book. The current government's obsession with 'education, education, education' has led it into one problem after another as it seeks to micromanage the huge UK education industry. Last year's botched teacher vetting and the A-level regrading fiasco, two recent examples, have not deterred its ever-growing compulsion to meddle, meddle, meddle. And don't even start me on the recent White Paper on Higher Education.

Alison Wolf, Professor of Education at London University's Institute of Education, is not an economist. But she attributes many of the government's failures - and those of previous Conservative governments - to the mistaken belief that education is crucial to the success of the economy. She writes that: 'An unquestioning faith in the economic benefits of education has brought with it huge amounts of wasteful government spending, attached to misguided and even pernicious policies'(p. xi).

Professor Wolf shows that the evidence contradicts the view that government spending on education plays a decisive role in economic growth. There are plenty of examples of rapidly growing economies where educational spending has been low, and of economies where relatively high educational expenditure has had little impact on growth.

Even in cases where high spending is apparently associated with high income per head, the causation is as likely to run in the opposite direction. Families in rich societies want to spend more on education, while complex modern economies also require educated people to perform more complex jobs although Professor Wolf rightly points out there is a continuing demand for employees in low-skilled fields which is often neglected.

Sounds good, doesn't it.

Here's a bit from the Introduction:

… an unquestioning faith in the economic benefits of education has brought with it huge amounts of wasteful government spending, attached to misguided and even pernicious politics. Just because something is valuable, it does not follow that yet more of it is by definition a good idea: that any addition, any increment, must be welcomed. Yet in practice this is what we seem to believe.

Okay, the book is definitely going to play to most of my libertarian prejudices. And that's not very admirable. What is better is that this woman obviously knows a lot about that education policy stuff that I have such a difficulty with. I will learn a lot if I read this book. The economic benefits of this, to me, and to the world in general, are going to be undetectable.

But I come from a family in a rich society, and I want more education.

Does Education Matter? by Alison Wolf is a Penguin paperback, first published in 2002.

And – isn't this nice? – this was where, this afternoon, I bought it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 PM
Category: Economics of education
[4] [0]
Denationalise Holloway College

Well, as promised, something before my bed-time, but strictly a copy-and-paste-and-a-comment-if-you're-lucky job.

From today's Telegraph:

Only a market-based funding system which encourages competition can save our ailing higher education institutions, writes Steven Schwartz.

Hurrah, my libertarian prejudices are about to be confirmed.

Just go out and visit our universities. Buildings are shabby, toilets don't work, and roofs leak. Equipment is getting old, staff are underpaid and classes are overcrowded. How did we get to this state and what we can do about it?

Once, universities were private organisations. They made ends meet by a combination of fees, donations, and endowments. After the First World War, they began to ask for and receive public funds. Today, they are financially dependent on the state and display all the characteristics of state-run enterprises, including lack of investment and demoralised staff.

He's right, I think. I visited Commenius University in Bratislava, at just the time when Communism was finally being buried, and the surprise for me was how little it differed in appearance from the average British University.

It reminded me of Royal Holloway College, which is one of the most extraordinary university buildings in Britain, being a brick by brick copy of a French chateau, but in red brick rather than the original white, and completed in the way that original chateau was only intended to be. I know this not because I ever studied at Holloway, but because it was just down the road from where I was raised. I could see its magic pinnacles from my bedroom window. True. Follow the link above, and take the "virtual tour", and see if I'm not right.

And last time I saw the inside of the place, it sported the same faded glorious, barbarians-camped-in-the-ruins style that I had also seen at Commenius, together with the same ugly blockhouses next door, or in the case of Holloway, scattered about in the old grounds. Or in other words, as the RHC website puts it:

Welcome to Royal Holloway - a unique blend of tradition and innovation.

I should imagine that the parallels between the physical appearance of the place and what goes on there intellectually are fairly exact. Although the big change is that Holloway used to be all for ladies, and is now … not bisexual, but you know what I mean. Plus, it's been "merged" with another college. Bedford, I think.

So, denationalise it. Good night everybody.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:44 AM
Category: Higher education
[0] [0]
July 30, 2003
An apology - and a little beating of my drum

I have mishandled my time today. Just when I should have been doing a meaningful stint of blogging here, I got caught up in something else, and now I have been summoned away to an Important Meeting which I Don't Want To Miss. I will put something here before I go to bed, but I won't manage anything before midnight. As I say: sorry. Please all read your books and do not misbehave.

Meanwhile, by way of rescuing my reputation somewhat in the eyes of my readers here, I ask you all to take a look at what it says about little old me at the bottom of this posting. Although I notice that, unlike Colby Cosh, I am not awarded my own newspaper column. So, not that brilliant.

Nevertheless: wow.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:08 PM
Category: This Blog
[2] [1]
July 29, 2003
Exams and exam comments – here and at Samizdata

If you write for a big blog and you also run a small specialist blog like this one, here's one of the things you do. You put a story up on your small blog. You get a comment on it. You then rehash that comment into a posting on the big blog. And then you recycle any comments you get there back to the small blog. And you keep on doing that until you are the Ruler of the Universe.

So, this time around, the starting point was this posting here about the collapsing British exam system, which Emma commented upon, which I then put up at Samizdata, and which Guy Herbert then commented upon there, thus:

I'm surprised you don't recall that once upon a time – as little as 20 years ago – we did have a market-like system for qualifications for GCEs O-levels, and A-levels (and the forgotton "S-levels" for those for whom A-levels were not demanding enough). The various exam boards were independent, and schools would choose between them, depending on the sort of syllabus they wanted to pursue. The government didn't set the syllabus. The exams were kept honest by competition, because the universities and other consumers of the qualified could discount a board's qualifications if it got too lax.

My reading of the QCA's railway-style approach is that it's a Parkinsonian scheme to increase its own size and influence, which will be supported and encouraged by the government as a means to tighter central control. Compare the invention of the Strategic Rail Authority. While there are still lots of exam boards--even as currently constituted--it wouldn't be a vast adminstrative task just to abolish the QCA and the national currriculum and let nature set the course.

All of which is far too well informed and intelligent not to pass on to you lot, just in case you don't bother with Samizdata. (I certainly hope that this is true of some of you. I try to put at least some stuff here that is of interest to people with very different political prejudices to mine.)

I did sort of know what Guy says about how exams used to be, but there's sort of knowing and really knowing. I mean, did the Ministry of Education in those days have no influence on the exam choices made by State Schools? I don't know. But Guy seems fairly sure that they didn't.

That's a problem I've always had with learning things. I've never been happy about just taking one person's word for it. I need to get the story from several different and preferably unrelated directions. Which I think is an attitude that has educational implications.

One thing I think it means is that with teaching, as with the political persuading which is what I have spent a lot of my life doing, you have to be content to say your piece to your "pupils", and then let them make of it what they want to. Which might very well include nothing.

And exams, of course, don't fit very well with that attitude.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[5] [4]
July 28, 2003
Safe education - but not such good education

There's nothing like a link to something else there to get you looking at a good piece near the one linked to, that you would otherwise have missed.

Instapundit links to this posting, which is fun and also education-related too, but just under it I also found this, which is Photon Courier's take on the decline of what they call in America "shop".

Some of you may recall me ruminating on this here, in connection with my friend the "shop" teacher John Washington.

This afterthought strikes me as particularly acute:

UPDATE: I'm sure that another factor playing a role here is the fear of lawsuits. If kids are allowed to smart off in a shop class, it can be very dangerous. It's a lot easier to hurt yourself (or someone else) with a welding torch than with a computer or a piece of paper. And few school administrators seem to have the courage to insist on the right to remove troublemakers from class...so activities that could be hazardous are simply avoided.

I suspect that many of the factors discussed here are also relevant to the decline of laboratory science in the schools.

Makes sense. And see also the second half of this recent posting here, which also bears on child safety.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:08 PM
Category: Technology
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July 27, 2003
"I don't mean to be patronising …"

Over at A TCS Blog, Emma (who commented on the post below) has a charming description of attending a Promenade Concert, an event which coincidentally I also gave some attention to.

The killer line in Emma's description for our purposes here was this, concerning a rather officious member of the audience who was telling other people what was what in a very stupid way:

"I'm a school teacher. I don't mean to be patronising; I just like telling people things they might want to know."


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:27 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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July 26, 2003
A proposed unfree market in exams

Very few national education stories interest me as much as perhaps they should, given the subject matter of this blog, but this one looks interesting:

Any organisation could be allowed to set itself up as an exam board under radical proposals to create a free market in qualifications currently being considered by the government's testing watchdog.

A free market in exams is something I've been arguing for here.

Senior officials at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) are discussing plans to deregulate the market in GCSE and A-level exams to provide greater choice and competition for schools.

This is the killer paragaph, which tells you that actually this is most definitely not going to be a free market in exams. It is going to be a "market" in who can best (in who's eyes?) administer the exams that the government has already decided upon. A true free market would mean the examining enterprises examining any darn thing they chose to examine, and people being allowed to pick and choose among all the different offered exams.

Such a move would reverse the recent trend towards fewer exam boards - the three main boards in England were formed out of the amalgamation of more than 20 since the 1970s.

Hm. Markets don't necessarily result in lots of different enterprises. Often they result in a few huge ones. This is because in many markets people especially value standardisation. Think PC compability in the personal computer market.

It would also accelerate the controversial trend for commercial companies to become increasingly involved in running public exams, which recently saw Edexcel, a charity, taken over by the media giant Pearson.

Running "public" exams? And as we've already see above, "public" means the exams that have already been decided on by the government.

The plans were proposed by Sir Anthony Greener, the QCA chairman, a City grandee who is also deputy chairman of BT. He proposed a market similar to that in the energy industry, where some companies are primarily "upstream" generators of gas or electricity, while others sell the product to consumers "downstream".

Doesn't sound much like a "free" market to me, more like an administered one.

Under his plans, exam boards' current responsibilities would be split between different bodies. Tasks from writing the syllabus to marking papers and setting grade boundaries would be handled by separate organisations.

Split? Separate organisations? Sounds rather like what's happened to the railways. I also write for Transport Blog, which has dug deep into that, and if there is one idea that seems to unite us all over there, whatever political direction we come at the argument from, it is that "fragmentation" has been a disaster. This sounds like a plan to "fragment" the exam industry, as opposed to actually creating a free market. Okay, maybe fragmentation won't be such a disaster here, but it remains one of the big myths that in order to introduce capitalism, competition, etc. you have to smash everything to bits.

Any organisation would be able to set itself up as an exam board as long as it was accredited by the QCA and awarded a licence to run academic exams.

See what I mean about administered.

Opponents of private sector involvement in state education are likely to oppose the proposals.

You don't say.

A spokesman for the QCA stressed that the plan was one of several options under discussion, but he said that it was "unlikely" the number of awarding bodies would increase.

So, one of the opponents then.

England's two other exam boards, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and Oxford and Cambridge and RSA currently remain as charities.

Not quite sure what the significance of that is. Either it just happened to be the end of the story or something is being implied about how the existing boards might have their charitable status removed, or maybe that their charitable status is causing problems, or that making them businesses would make them even worse, or something.

Anyway, as to the story as a whole, the first paragraph of it is inaccurate. The headline is much better:

Exam boards could be subject to market forces.

That's right. And tell me an existing civil servant or other public servant who is not now subject to market forces. Civil servants get paid, and they are bombarded with a stream of instructions from the government about what they must do. That's the plan for these new exam "enterprises".

The problem with this new administered market is that, being collective public officials rather than true free market enterprises, these exam boards will be dominated by the short term matter of keeping their licenses, rather than the long term matter of offering and sustaining good exams, worth taking and worth having passed. And short-termism could result in dumbing down under this new regime, just as it does now. Everything depends on the licensing body. They will be the people in charge, not the new exam enterprises.

This will not, I repeat, be a true free market.

The one aspect of the situation which might just tantalise me into hoping for the best rather than simply assuming the worst, is that some of the suppliers of examination services might be very big. If the supplier is big, then that supplier might be supplying such services to a number of governments around the world, rather than just the one, and therefore might be said to have some kind of reputation to preserve. That would at least nudge the big suppliers away from the worst sorts of short-termism.

But "might" is the operative word there. Plenty of Britain's rail franchisees do lots of other business, and they don't seem to have managed very well. They just blame their one customer, the government, for the mess, and who's to say they're wrong?

A real market would be if individual teachers, parents, children and future employers could choose which exams to take, encourage, and pay attention to, unmolested by the government, which regards education as beneath its attention. We're a bit of a way from that, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:11 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsFree market reforms
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July 25, 2003
Teach Your Own

I went to one of those sites which says how you rank in the blogosphere. Someone said they ranked 364,276th, or something. ha ha. And at some point in my odyssey I typed in brianmicklethwait.com/education and eventually I found myself here, which looks useful. I don't know how I got there, but there it is.

Home education is a perfectly legal form of educational provision in the UK; furthermore, it is always a parent's responsibility to make sure that their child receives a suitable education.

Yes, I've read that before, but it can't be said too often.

Home education is open to all parents, whatever their race, creed, income, social class or level of education.
- You don't have to have any teaching qualifications.
- You don't have to follow the National Curriculum.
- You don't have to keep to school hours, days or terms.
- You don't have to give formal, school-type lessons
- You don't need to use a timetable.
- Your child will not take Key Stage tests (SATs)

Now for the bad news.

So what do parents need in order to teach their own children successfully?

Ah, successfully.

John Holt answered this question in his book Teach Your Own.

"First of all they have to like them, enjoy their company ... enjoy all their talk and questions ... have enough confidence in themselves, scepticism about experts, and willingness to be different from most people …" (Holt p. 38)

Yeah yeah. I preferred the earlier stuff, the bit about what you didn't have to do.

I'm addled and, er, confused. I've been hosting one of my Friday evenings, and have been so busy getting things ready for that that I haven't done my edublogging for today until now. So it was either this or nothing. Consider yourself lucky.

David Carr was one of the attenders. He has a posting up on Samizdata with an educational theme.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:28 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
July 24, 2003
Joanne Jacobs – an appreciation

Joanne Jacobs writes:

Twelve months ago today, I set Sitemeter running. I should hit 296,500 by the end of the day. I'm running at more than 1,000 visits a day during the week, about 600 on weekends. Not bad for an education blog. I'm not sure how many visits the grand total would run to: I started in January, 2001, but didn't keep count of visitors.

Not bad indeed. I haven't set up a Sitemeter or any other such device, because I'm one of those scrawny take-it-or-leave-it bloggers. I do my bloggings, and who knows what they make of it? Maybe the occasional thing sticks. Occasionally you see one of them getting some flash of insight which makes it all worth while. But a machine to see whose paying attention? Don't want to think about that just yet.

My point is that whereas this blog here is still a blog groping into proper shape and proper existence (a redesign and a reorganisation is in the pipeline plus any month now I may start doing some actual educatingwhich will liven things up here considerably), Joanne's is the real thing and has been for some time.

She has a great long list of blogs and non-blogs on the left. Good blogs, fun blogs, also good, good books. And what item is at the very top of her list of things? Well, by virtue of this being in the "edublog" category and by virtue of Brian starting with B which is very close to the start of the alphabet … (being called Brian does have its advantages) … yes, you've got it, this blog is the absolute top of Joanne's list. Ahead of all manner of aristobloggers and grandees of every sort.

This must have helped my traffic, and this is me saying thank you. When you get the drips from the biggest hole in a big bucket like this, you get a lot of water. It must be. Obviously some come here, take a look and leave it at that. But equally obviously, a few must be staying around. I don't go on about American edubloggers and their postings, because my aim here is to expand the edubllogosphere beyond the confines of the USA, but this is not something I can just ignore.

So, to make an exception, let's take a look at Joanne's latest posting. It's about some parents who put their twelve year old son and his friend in the trunk during a twenty mile car journey. The official version is that they did this because they were abusive monsters of the sort who can't be trusted to have children let alone raise them, and that junior should be taken into whatever they call "care" over there, which would be the equivalent of locking the trunk for ever, I would say. Well, what I mean is, the authorities didn't like it. The parental version is that the kids thought it might be fun to do, so they said okay.

Lt. Joseph Jordan, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said the parents are lucky no one was hurt.

All parents are "lucky no one was hurt", all the time. But I agree, that's not a reason to nail them to the kitchen wall or keep them in rabbit hutches, to educate them about pain, life, etc.

"Obviously, there was a lot of danger there," Jordan said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "They're supposed to be in seat belts. If there would have been a rear-end collision, they could have been seriously injured. So we feel that it was reckless to put the kids in the trunk," Jordan said.

Ah yes. Seat belts. I forgot.

Twelve year old boys, taking risks. Whatever next? And we definitely mustn't help them do that. Twelve year old boys who want risk must live a further three years without risk of any kind, and then do the adolescent rebellion running-away-from-home crazy-sex and crazy-drugs thing. There's a proper way to do these things, sir, ma'am. We're policemen, and we know about this stuff.

None of this could ever happen in Britain, because here we call it the "boot".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:01 PM
Category: BloggingBoys will be boys
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July 23, 2003
The higher education of Dwight D. Eisenhower

There are those who say that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a less than perfect leader, and say, for instance that he could and should have finished matters in Europe in 1944-45 at a date nearer to 1944 than he managed to. Nevertheless … Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe, President of the United States (for two terms). The man was clearly doing something right. Here's an explanation of what, from the book How To Be A Star At Work by Robert E. Kelley:

Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik, an expert on the mentoring process, writes about President Dwight Eisenhower, who had a mediocre record when he graduated from West Point. He seemed headed for a lackluster career as a lower-level army officer when, during World War 1, he was assigned to support duty at a desk job. Meanwhile, his classmates were on the front lines of the French-German border gaining valuable combat experience and winning battlefield promotions.

After the war, it was Eisenhower who realized that if he wanted a distinguished career in the army, he had to find someone to show him how to understand the institution in ways he couldn't learn at West Point. So he sought out a highly respected commander, General Fox Connor, and requested a transfer to serve with him.

Eisenhower was fortunate that Connor warmed up to the mentoring prospect. The two men, Zaleznik notes, bonded like father and son-it was Connor who showed him the lay of the land in the army and challenged him to live up to the high expectations a mentor places in a follower.

Eisenhower later wrote that what he learned under Connor was "… sort of like a graduate school in military affairs and the hurnanities, leavened by a man who was experienced in his knowledge of men and their conduct." Eisenhower later won an appointment to the prestigious Command and General Staff School, where he graduated first in his class and launched his brilliant career. He owed it all, he wrote years later, to his mentor.

So okay, Eisenhower didn't learn how to finish world wars quite as quickly as he might have, but he certainly learned how to get great jobs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:27 PM
Category: Adult education
[2] [0]
Lana likes chewing gum and wants to learn more about Singapore

Since this posting includes a request to send information, and since it is about two comments which appeared on a Samizdata posting, I posted it first on Samizdata, with its larger readership and helpful commenters. I reproduce it here, because of its obvious educational vibes.

Two comments have appeared on a long ago posting of mine here (i.e. on Samizdata) about the menace to Western Civilisation posed by people dropping chewing gum all over the damn place.

Comment 1:

i like chewing on gum^^ It should have neva been banned!!! I feel sooooo sorry for the singaporeans....owell beta get on wiv my english assignment nowz...byebye :)


Comment 2:

Hi its me again (Lana) if anyone noes any interesting facts about Singapore then can u plz email me qt_mashi@hotmail.com, bcuz this is for my english assignment and its very important THANK YOU :)


You know what? Lana likes chewing gum, and I like her. She has her own individual take on English spelling, although maybe it's her whole generation and they all spell because bcuz. But, she seems to be able to spell in the regular manner when she wants to ("any interesting facts about Singapore") or when she is forgetting not to, plus she has a nice ingratiating manner and understands the value of a smile. I think she should be encouraged.

So, if anyone has any interesting facts about Singapore, please email them to her.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:38 PM
Category: Learning by doingSpelling
[1] [0]
July 22, 2003
Another education friendly blog

J. P. Laurier, who has started this blog, sent an appreciative email today about this blog, to add to his first comment here, on the piece immediately below this one about exams.

He says his blog is still at the growing pains stage, but I think it already well worth a look. I liked in particular the posting about the movie Stand and Deliver, which is the one about the Latino maths teacher played by Edward James Olmos.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:19 PM
Category: Blogging
[1] [1]
July 21, 2003
How useful are exams?

Alice Bachini on exams:

I'm so glad I'm not a teacher anymore

Partly because you have to deal with things like exam grades being completely stupid and meaningless. How does a teacher spend all year encouraging kids to take something seriously, only so that at the end of the year, the whole thing ends up becoming a farce?

Well, in my view, almost all school exams are pretty farcical. They don't help children learn, and there's no real value whatever in examining them on things unless they need clearly to demonstrate some kind of commitment to and ability in some subject in order for universities to have confidence in accepting them on courses, say.

If people are going to have examinations, they should organise them properly, with some kind of decent academic standards. At least then people know where they stand. Otherwise, they definitely ought to forget the whole thing.

I'm not so sure. Proving commitment is right, but it's not just proving it to universities.

In Brian-world, children decide for themselves whether they take exams or not, but if they want my advice I'll tell them that exams surely prove something important besides the mere matter of whether they have merely learned the contents of the syllabus. They prove, it seems to me, the ability to handle information under pressure, on the one big occasion when it really matters. This is surely an immensely important skill, and arguably the key skill of working in a modern information-based economy.

It is said that, a few years later, and maybe even a few weeks later, you will have forgotten everything you "learned" for those exams you took. So what? Most of us forget the facts around whatever task we are performing, after we have performed it.

I will have forgotten most of the mere facts surrounding this post pretty soon, and probably in a matter of a few days. That's not the point. The point is: Am I using the knowledge I now have to make a worthwhile point, to you, now? If I am, then mission accomplished, and if I've forgotten all about it in a week, that won't matter. The posting will still be here, in the archives, even if I have to think hard to remember anything about it myself.

What exams test is the habit of switching on one's concentration, onto what matters, when it matters. And since concentration can't be permanently switched on, exams also test the ability to switch off one's concentration at the right times, and thereby to make best possible use of it.

This is why employers take exam results seriously, and why they are surely right to do this.

It is also surely why they are not that bothered about the mere content of the syllabuses being examined. Just so long as it's something, and just so long as the brains of the examinees were really tested.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[6] [0]
Black achievement versus black macho street culture

Anyone who combines being British with trying to be honest knows that there is more to British black underachievement than white racism, and that a big part of the story is a black macho culture of street-based anti-achievement, or perhaps one should say achievement of another sort. One day, maybe, some genius (don't know what colour) will manage to combine the best of macho black street culture with the best of white nerd culture. As it is, any black boy who shows the slightest tendency to go the black nerd way – to study, do his homework, try to go to university, etc – is liable to get the crap kicked out of him by his black "brothers".

This debate in the Guardian on this fraught subject is of particular interest, because it doesn't bang on only about white racism. Sample paragraph:

… The gospel I preach is a simple one. It asks black young men to look beyond the street and beyond immediate gratification. It asks some hard questions about their own responsibilities: homework, bedtime, respect for peers and adults, good manners, self-control and how to succeed in the system. Nobody is asking our boys these questions. We just get more politicians telling them they're victims of racism.

It's worth a longer read. Thanks to the Philosophical Cowboy who also alerted Joanne Jacobs to this piece, who also comments.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:35 PM
Category: Peer pressure
[2] [1]
"Better theories of learning"

Yet another educational expert is praising computer games:

Violent video games are more educational than school, stimulating children to be more critical, constructive and reflective than conventional classroom teaching, says one of the world's leading educational experts.

Children trying to escape a maze, find a hidden treasure or blast away an enemy with a high-powered rifle in a fantasy world make greater cognitive leaps than they do in the classroom, Professor James Paul Gee believes.

'Better theories of learning are embedded in video games than many children in primary and secondary schools ever experience in the classroom,' said Gee, author of What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy, to be published next week.

'Violence is just a way of grabbing the child's attention. What's important is that the more violent the game, the more strategic modes of thinking the child has to develop to win - modes of thinking that fit better with today's hi-tech, global world than the learning they are taught in school.'

Never having played computer games, or had any sustained dealings with children who do so a lot, I don't know about this.

But the argument certainly throws a different light on the debate about whether educatinal standards are climbing, or falling. Can there be any doubt that today's children tend to be better at computer games than were their grandparents at the same age?

I still remember remember fondly this poster at TCS blog who saw a day coming when children won't be allowed to do sums or read books and write reports on them until they've done their daily stint of computer gaming. I wouldn't put it past them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:50 PM
Category: Technology
[1] [0]
July 20, 2003
Freedom in Quebec

Here's an article from Le Québécois Libre praising homeschooling. Last two paragraphs:

From my contact with homeschooling parents, it was not unusual for children who enjoyed their self-directed, self-paced learning in a pressure-free environment, to freely choose to struggle and learn extremely challenging, rigorous and even comprehensive academic material that was of interest to them. This was especially the case when the material was arranged to begin with the basics, then progress in a very logical sequence to higher levels of complexity. All one parent did was to provide encouragement, reassurance and emotional support as her child freely chose to struggle through such material, which came packaged in a series of CD-rom discs, VCR's and work books.

It seems that when the state and its regime of forcible compulsion is absent, children who enjoy their self-directed, self-paced learning in a nurturing and supportive family environment can actually make progress in learning the kind of challenging and comprehensive academic material that has driven highly stressed Japanese school-children to committing suicide in that nation's high-pressure state-run school system. Yet state education bureaucrats in several North American school districts remain adamantly hostile to the concept of homeschooling, harassing and victimizing homeschooling parents, even arresting and laying truancy charges against homeschooled teenagers.

There are more homeschooling links within the text.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:51 AM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
July 19, 2003
The home schooling debate in Scotland is not getting any nicer

The invaluable David Farrer links to these letters in the Scotsman about home schooling.

Home schooling is apparently being talked about up there in the same breath as Fred West, mass murderer.

So, the question is, will the critics of home schooling succeed in persuading Scotland that home schoolers are mad, or will the critics of home schooling persuade Scotland that they, the critics of home schooling, are the mad ones?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:16 PM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
July 18, 2003
"Educational neglect" in New York

Jim of Jim's Journal did a piece that I featured here, about the glory of the American Melting Pot. Today, however, he emailed about a less happy American circumstance:


Here's a situation you might be interested in mentioning in your Education Blog:

A 15 year-old girl in New York City has successfully completed 71 credits at two public community colleges in New York City. A full-time college student would normally complete between sixty and seventy credits during two years of study. (Community colleges in the U.S. typically offer Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degrees after that amount of study; for some students that is the ompletion of their college career but many then go on to complete a B.A. or B.S. degree at a full college or niversity. I'm not sure if there is a British equivalent or not.) She earned a 3.84 cumulative average while doing this; that is pretty close to being a straight A average.

Recently the girl and her parents sued in an attempt for her to receive a degree. In the U.S. and Canada there is something called a G.E.D. (General Equivalency Diploma). It was intended for people who dropped out of high school but then later in life needed a high school diploma, either because of employment requirements or in order to enroll in higher education. Apparently the community colleges allowed anyone to take courses, but high school graduation (or a GED) was a requirement for official admission to a degree program. New York State said she had to be at least 17 years old to take the tests leading to a GED. Thus, a suit to force New York to let her get a GED so she could get her associate's degree and enroll in a bachelor's degree program.

The judge ruled against them and was harshly critical of her father for allowing her to take college courses instead of attending high school. He also noted that it would have been legal for him to have her be a Home Schooled student, but allowing her to attend college was illegal.

Not only that, but now New York City's child protective services division has launched an investigation and is threatening her father with prosecution for "educational neglect" for allowing her to skip high school. This from a city with a notoriously poor public school system. Pregnant 15-year-old drug addicts are normal but allowing bright children to attend college is a horror that must be stamped out at once. The idiocy of the education bureaucracy and the Big Nanny social enforcement bureaucracy is truly beyond belief.

More in the Daily News and the New York Post.



Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
July 17, 2003
Primary improvement?

Today I did a posting on Samizdata, quoting from this guy's article in the Guardian. And buried in among his piece is this little educational snippet, which I am starting to hear from lots of sources, New Labour and otherwise.

Although Blair sounds like a Tory more often than not, his government's policies have been more redistributive than they admit to being. Yes, too much of this money is raised through indirect taxation; but still, the general trend is positive. Ditto for the belated increases in public sector spending. In one area I have seen at first hand - primary education - there has been a marked improvement; secondary schools and hospitals are harder to fix, but still, throwing money at them is a good way to start. As for foreign policy... here we come to the nub of the anti-Blair problem. …

And of course foreign policy – the WMDs row – is the point of the piece.

Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by that reference to primary education. "In one area I have seen at first hand …" That definitely counts for something, and it helps that the author comes across in general as an honest person.

David Milliband, the "Schools Standards Minister", has been popping up on the television lately, and he never fails to boast about how much better primary education has been getting lately, and the implication is that soon they'll be moving on to secondary education, and to university education, and then to adult education, until everyone in the entire country has become tremendously clever.

Well, the later stages of all that may come unstuck, because as people get older they have a way of asserting themselves and not doing what you want, but in the meantime, has there actually been an improvement in primary schooling?

Thinking about it, it does make sense to me that of all the kinds of teaching, the teaching of the 3Rs to young and pliable children is likely to respond best to state centralism, and to be least screwed up by it. After all, it's a basically pretty straightforward procedure, and if you're a teacher and you just do what London says, that is quite likely to be an improvement. And this would be true even if the rigmarole being imposed is rather unsatisfactory, provided what it is replacing was shambolic enough, as in many cases it surely has been.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:17 PM
Category: Primary schools
[0] [0]
Freedom and whisky and schooling

There's excellent linkage and comment at Freedom and Whisky about Scottish education. There's a strong home schooling angle to the education debate up there, because unlike the British politicians, the pols in Scotland are prepared to be vocal in their opposition to home schooling. Naturally, David Farrer disagrees.

Sadly, the days of the Scottish Enlightenment are long gone. What they're now back to arguing about in Scotland is the low level of literacy among the poorest school leavers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:46 AM
Category: Literacy
[0] [0]
July 16, 2003
"Facilitating" the private sector in Pakistan

More news that the educational private sector is impressing people in some surprising places:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: July 15 (PNS) – Federal Minister for Education Zobaida Jalal Monday said that a facilitation cell will be established to facilitate private sector schools and institutions to help them in getting registered with government to resolve the row between CDA and the private schools management committee.

Presiding over a meeting with Chairman CDA Chaudhry abdul and the representatives of private schools management committee she said that government would take all necessary steps to facilitate and help the private sector in the field of education.

She maintained that private sector should be encouraged so that it can help the government in uplifting the standard of the education in the country.

Not that any of this is particularly good news for private sector education in Pakistan. When politicians talk of how they will "facilitate" and "help", and how this or that will be "encouraged", look out.

First will come money, then the nagging and the threats, then government control. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear that I am right. With luck, there won't be any money. This is the big educational advantage that the Third World now has over the First.

Much better is government indifference, because then they leave you alone to get on with it. Even better is malign indifference, because then they really leave you alone to get on with it, and are positively proud of themselves for knowing nothing about what you do. Perfect.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:35 PM
Category: PoliticsThe private sector
[2] [0]
July 15, 2003
Terence Kealey on the uneducatedness of the steam engine pioneers

My current reading enthusiasm is Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, and he has interesting things to say about just how educated Britain's steam engine pioneers were.

The first commmercial steam engine, Thomas Newcomen's, was at work in 1712 at Dudley Castle, Worcester. It was huge, expensive, and inefficient, but it clearly met a need because, by 1781, about 360 had been built in Britain, most of them devoted to pumping water out of coal mines. …

… The historian D. S. L. Cardwell has established that Newcomen, who was barely literate, was a humble provincial blacksmith and ironmonger who, stuck out in rural Devon, had never had any contact with science or scientists. Newcomen did, however, have a lot of contact with the tin mines in the neighbouring county of Cornwall, and he knew that they were frequently, and disastrously, flooded. There was, unquestionably, a market for an effective pump.

So, no "education" in the sense most people now understand it, then. Plenty of knowledge, but no book learning.

The first significant improvement was made in 1764 when James Watt invented the separate condenser …

Whatever that may be. I'm not concerned here with what these people did, just with how much schooling they had.

Watt's advances … owed less than nothing to contemporary science; they proceeded on an 'old established fact'. In any case, Watt had not been formally educated in science; he worked at Glasgow University as a technician. …

So some schooling there, but no scientific training.

… Moreover, the next major advance in steam engine technology, the use of high presseure steam to push the piston, was made by a man in Newcomen's mould. Richard Trevithick, whose engine in Coalbrookdale in 1802 achieved the unprecedented pressure of 145 pounds per square inch, was barely literate. Born in Cornwall to a mining family, Trevithick received no education other than that provided at his village primary school, whose master described him as 'disobedient, slow and obstinate'. But Trevithick addressed a problem. The Cornish tin mines were a long way from the nearest coal fields, so their Watt steam engines were expensive to run. Could they be made more efficient? Unlettered and ill-educated though he was, Trevithick thought so, and he introduced steam under high pressure to push, not suck, the piston. …

In 1801, Trevithick built his first steam carriage, which he drove up a hill in Camborne, Cornwall, on Christmas Eve. In 1803, Trevithick built the world's first steam railway locomotive at the Pendaren Ironworks, South Wales. On 21 February 1804, that engine hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men along 10 miles of trackway. …

Still not much in the way of education, although bags of engineering intuition, acquired by mucking about with existing machinery, and struggling to improve it.

Who's next?

The very next major advance, too, was made by an ill-educated, barely literate, barely numerate, self-taught artisan called George Stephenson. Light though it was, Trevithick's locomotive was still too heavy for the cast-iron rails of the day. … But on 27 September 1825, a steam engine designed by George Stephenson drew 450 people from Darlington to Stockton at the trrifying speed of 15 miles per hour. Stephenson went on to built the Liverpool to Manchester line, for which he then designed the 'Rocket', an engine which could attain 36 miles per hour! Yet Stephenson was unschooled. The son of a mechanic, he followed his father in operating a Newcomen Engine to pump out a coal mine in Newcastle. He only learnt to read (just) at the age of 19 when he attended night school, and he never really acquired mathematics. So unsophisticated was Stephenson, and so dense his Geordie brogue, that he needed an interpreter when talking to educated men from London. Yet it was the educated men – from all over Europe – who consulted him, not the other way round.

In other words, then, very little schooling at all went into the inventing of the steam engine and the steam locomotive? Correct. Ten out of ten. Or to be precise, three and a half out of four, and when it comes to formal scientific education, four out of four.

It will be seen therefore, that the development of the steam engine, the one artefact that more than any other embodies the Industrial Revolution, owed nothing to science; it emerged from pre-existing technology, and it was created by uneducated, often isolated, men who applied practical common sense and intuition to address the mechanical problems that beset them, and whose solution would yield obvious economic reward.

It is of course a matter for debate just how much can be learned from this story that is of relevance to the modern world. Maybe the steam engine was invented and pioneered by barely-educated men, but it is very hard to believe that the Industrial Revolution could have got underway in a nation populated only by such unlettered men as these. Those educated men who consulted with Stephenson may indeed not have invented the steam locomotive, but they surely made better – and better organised – use of it than a nation consisting only of similar illiterates would have done. The educated men did surely contribute a lot.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how "intuition" alone could have enabled anyone to devise and perfect the modern electronic chip, and it would be impossible for an illiterate to programme a computer.

But even so, the story does throw an interesting light on the limits of education as a contributory explanation of one of the great technological events in human history. And all this from the Vice Chancellor of a University.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:52 PM
Category: HistoryLearning by doing
[4] [1]
July 14, 2003

This sounds ominous:

The school secretary is forlorn. The caretaker is beside himself with fury. Dean Hall, a school for children with special educational needs in the Forest of Dean, is to close in September 2005.

Parents marched in the street to save the school, but the Labour-run council said it was following the Government's policy of including all but the most seriously disabled or disturbed children in mainstream classes.

The local school organisation committee, which oversees admissions and places, referred the controversial closure to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, set up under the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act.

The adjudicator, Hilary Nicolle, the former education director of the London borough of Islington, backed the council and said that it had a legal obligation to close special schools and divert the money to mainstream classes to comply with the Government's inclusion policy.

Her word is final unless the parents can find the funds to apply to the High Court for a judicial review of the decision. If the ruling stands, it could sound the death knell for hundreds of other schools under threat.

The picture is complicated by the Government's interpretation of its own laws. While inclusion remains its stated aim, ministers seem unwilling to accept that it entails the closure of special schools.

Publishing the report of her working party on the future direction of special schools last April, Baroness Ashton, the minister with responsibility for special education, told The Telegraph: "I am very worried that somehow people believe the Government's agenda is to close special schools, when it absolutely isn't."

What's going on here?

I think it is clear. The government has been reading Brian's Education Blog and has realised that state education is a Bad Idea. They want to turn Britain into a nation of home schoolers and private schoolers. They want to destroy state education, as quickly as they can. But how can they make the destruction of state education seem like a Good Idea to their barking mad backbenchers who think that state education is such a Good Thing?

One day a year or two ago, some policy advising genius came up with the answer. Why don't we close down all the specialist schools where they now do whatever they can to help children who need special teaching to make any educational headway, and who often misbehave if they don't get it? Children of this sort are not that numerous, not as a percentage. But if they can be "reintegrated" back into the "school community", and scattered in twos and threes throughout the existing state schools, the havoc they will cause and the teacher attention they will divert from the currently docile majority will be out of all proportion to their numbers.

I am a devout enemy of state education, but even I would shrink from the sheer ruthlessness needed to make a policy like this stick. That's politicians for you, I guess. Nothing if not decisive. Ever willing to break eggs to get their omelettes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:32 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
July 11, 2003
"I am the very model of an Education Minister ..."

Says Rob Worsnop in a posting on the Libertarian Alliance Forum:

I found this typed-up on an old scrap of paper in my parents' house a few years ago. So not exactly topical: it refers to Neil Kinnock, in his role as Shadow Education Minister.

I am the very model of an Education Minister;
My arguments are tortuous, my motivation sinister;
But though my plans are ropy, and my reasons even ropier,
I'm laying the foundations of a socialist utopia.

I'm well aware the arguments the Tories use to blame us is
that schools without competition will foster ignoramuses.
But tolerating independent schools will be hypocrisy
since freedom's incompatible with genuine democracy.

I want to see that everyone learns socialism properly,
and this is only possible inside a state monopoly;
All schools that I don't recognise will therefore be prohibited
and any private tutors will be flogged or even gibbeted.

All middle-class morality I promise to eliminate;
Exams I shall abolish, since they certainly discriminate;
A college with a vacancy selecting its own candidate
will quickly wish it hadn't, when it finds I have disbanded it.

I'll throw away all covenants and charters international
with which I disagree, and which must therefore be irrational;
I short, in all of Europe from the Parthenon to Finisterre
I'll be the most intolerant, intolerable Minister.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:58 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [2]
July 10, 2003
Dyslexia and Phil Teare

Phil Teare has added a comment on this, which you would never have known about if I hadn't told you, because Blogs don't work like that. Or maybe they do, or can be made to, and this is another opportunity for a Brian Learning experience.

Anyway, Phil says this:

I actually have little to say right now, as I concur with Brian - It's too damn hot here in London, to even think. But as I just found you I would like to point you all to my blog (click on my name, below). It's all about dyslexia, and written by a dyslexic (me) who makes dyslexia focussed software. So fairly relevant I guess.


Very relevant indeed. Thanks Phil. It helps that he's a Londoner rather than an American, because Americans are already all over the blogosphere (including the education related blogosphere) but Londoners, by and large, and for the time being, aren't.

Phil supplies more dyslexia links here. Click on "Sites to See" at the top, after the swirling brain and computer have done their stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:51 PM
Category: Literacy
[0] [1]
July 09, 2003
"You don't have to be a horse to be a jockey"

The weather in London today is not calculated to provoke profundity. It is hot. It is humid. Frankly, you're lucky to get any education blogging here at all, and what you will get will be the usual piggy-packing on someone else, rather than anything startling from me.

The man on whose shoulders I ride today is Brian Glanville, writing in the sports pages of timesonline.co.uk (stuff in timesonline.co.uk soon disappears from the one-click-and-you're-there-o-sphere, so no link). Glanville heeps yet more well deserved scorn on that old cliché about how those who can do and those who can't teach and that those who can't, yet who teach nevertheless, ought therefort to be ashamed of themselves. But those who can't are often great teachers, as he proves by talking about some of the best football managers:

“YOU don’t have to have been a horse to be a jockey.” Such were the lapidary words of little Arrigo Sacchi, who never kicked a ball in anger but rose to become manager of Milan’s championship-winning team and of the Italy team that lost the 1994 World Cup final, only on penalties, to Brazil.

His words came back to me when it was announced that Carlos Queiroz had been made manager of the illustrious Real Madrid, who were said to have preferred in vain his fellow Portuguese, the 40-year-old Jose Mourinho, manager of the FC Porto team that beat Celtic in the Uefa Cup final in May and took the Portuguese league title into the bargain.

Sir Bobby Robson, once a fine footballer and World Cup player, mused that neither Portuguese manager had played football of any consequence. Both had worked under him. Queiroz came from an academic background and began as a schoolteacher. Mourinho, also a teacher — as, of course, was Liverpool’s Gérard Houllier before he made his managerial name at Noeux-les-Mines — initially became Robson’s interpreter when the Englishman managed Porto, “an academic without a football background” who stayed with Robson for six years, following him to Barcelona.

I love it. Especially the guy who started out as an interpreter, for goodness sake. It just goes to show that if you can get your foot in the door, watch whatever it is being taught, and learn to tell who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong and what needs to be said to get them to do it right, you can basically teach anything, even if you are paralysed from the neck downwards.

This harks back to a posting I did last year about the Charlton brothers, Jacky and Bobby, in which I suggested an inverse relationship between inborn ability and teaching ability, the point being that the former is so very hard to be explicit about. Just kick it, boy! Like this! What's your problem? Dunno, coach, I thought you might be able to tell me.

Good teachers, especially teachers of the sort who don't actually do whatever it is very well (or even at all), do not think like this, and do not teach like this. They may never know how to do it themselves, but they know the right things to say to the people who are doing it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:51 PM
Category: How to teach
[3] [1]
July 08, 2003
With the end in mind

Bas Braams has started an education blog – Scientifically Correct – which will be about K-12 education.

(What is K-12 education? All I know is that it is American. That's the year, yes? What does the K stand for? It's time I knew about this.)

Anyway, Bas emails of his new enterprise:

There will be co-authors, and I hope that together we'll maintain an active schedule of posting. We will focus on K-12 education in the United States, with occasional postings on international issues and on college education. We especially care about curriculum issues. My own area is math and science education, but I expect that others will write about language and humanities.

Sounds promising.

In his latest posting Bas quotes from a conversation with Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton:

Q. How would you change the way science is taught at universities?

A. I think we do not teach the introductory courses appropriately. Right now, we just teach all the basic facts of chemistry, physics, biology or mathematics. Then, we teach a few basic principles. By the third year, we finally tell the students what is interesting about all of this. I think we should break the pyramid. We should begin with the most exciting ideas in chemistry, physics, biology and how you go about studying it. What are the things you need to know? We should only teach what students need to know in order to understand what those are.

Q. Would you teach science by changing science education into a "great ideas of science" course?

A. Absolutely. I'd like to see us teaching more than a canon, a collection of facts, but why this is exciting, why is the exploration of nature one of the most wonderful ways to spend one's life.

Says Bas:

All this without a hint of regret that even Princeton University students should have to be babied into an appreciation of science.

Point taken, but as a description of how it makes sense to teach science to younger people, when the burden of persuasion, so to speak, is more with the teacher, I think Tilghman's attitude makes more sense. It's asking a lot of a secondary school teacher to know such stuff, though. My answer would be: get the Professors to make DVDs about how life is at the scientific frontier, and distribute those to the secondary schools. And to anyone else who is interested.

In general, it makes sense to me that teaching should be done with some idea in the minds of the pupils of what it might be leading to. That doesn't mean that there is no place for teachers who teach the basics and nothing else. Teaching is, after all, usually a team effort. But someone ought to be trying to get across what it's all for.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:48 PM
Category: The curriculum
[5] [0]
July 07, 2003
Linda Schrock Taylor

My thanks to David Farrer of Freedom and Whisky for sending me the link to this LewRockwell.com article by Linda Schrock Taylor. Nothing like a blogger bash to stimulate the exchange of useful information:

When I introduce a new group of students to my reading class, I explain that there are two main ways to teach reading – with sight words or with phonics. I tell them that I will present them with some information, and let them decide which method they wish me to use.

I explain that with the sight word approach (Dick & Jane, whole language, balanced instruction, balanced reading, re-packaged whole language, re-named whole language,…) the student only needs to memorize about 250,000 words, for instant sight recognition, in order to be a very good reader.

I explain that it is difficult for the human brain to achieve this feat …

I'll say. What is especially satisfying about this piece is that this is not just a teacher saying that her phonetics based methods work better; it is also a teacher saying how they actually work. I won't copy and past the entire thing, much as I'm tempted. But if such methods are of interest to you, I strongly, on the basis of what I've learned about this stuff so far, recommend the whole thing. I've never got around to reading LewRockwell.com properly. Maybe this needs to change.

Any explanations of why I'm wrong to admire this piece, if I am, would be particularly welcome.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:57 PM
Category: How to teachLiteracy
[3] [0]
July 04, 2003
"… a good delight-driven work ethic …"

I like this, from Linda's Homeschool Weblog:

Aaron was talking to a friend on the phone, "I just finished washing my parents' car," he said. His friend asked if he was getting money for doing it. Aaron said, "No, I just like doing it - I like doing car and bike work .... basically I'm the little work ant of the family."

Good description - he's always doing something ... he doesn't care for reading or writing but compensates in so many ways. I'm glad he's learning a good delight-driven work ethic rather than having paperwork forced on him in the public schools.

Aaron speaks for millions of boys. But unlike most of those millions, he's lucky enough to have parents who listen.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:32 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [1]
More HP sourced education

Joanne Jacobs links to this item, about the Hogwarts Summer Correspondence course being run by Steph of One Sixteenth.

I'm setting up lessons in Herbology, Care of Magical Creatures, Potions and a special class in Basic Charms and Spells for Muggle Witches.

But of course.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:02 PM
Category: Liberal education
[0] [0]
July 03, 2003
Dulwich in Shanghai

In a rush to do my Education Blog duties I trawled through the National Press, which I try not to do too often, because this can get very boring, especially when it involves the impossible-to-answer question: Are Things Getting Better or Are Things Getting Worse?

Anyway, the most interesting thing I found was undoubtedly this piece from the Guardian:

Some of the most historic names in British education are cropping up all over the far east as public schools begin to tap the vast and lucrative markets of China, Malaysia and Thailand.

In two months' time, Shrewsbury School, alma mater to Sir Philip Sidney and Charles Darwin, will open its first international branch in Bangkok. Last week Dulwich College started work on a new Chinese franchise in Shanghai, adding to its Thai branch on the island of Phuket. It may also open up a branch of Dulwich in India. Meanwhile Harrow, whose former pupils include Winston Churchill and Pandit Nehru, has a franchise in Bangkok.

Students from the Pacific rim are also flooding into fee-paying schools and universities in Britain. While British politicians praise the whole-class teaching and high standards they see in Asian classrooms, many in the far east see a British education as offering tradition and status combined with a more liberal, humanistic approach than their own schools and colleges.

Day pupils at Dulwich College International, Shanghai, will have to pay more than £3,000 a term, for example, roughly the same as their peers in south London. Under Chinese law, only ex-patriate British, Taiwanese and Hong Kong citizens can enrol, but the school says it hopes the restrictions will be lifted soon.

This is classic globalisation. Imagine how easy it would (not) have been to run Dulwich College International, Shanghai, in the year 1900. And imagine how much easier it has recently got, now that there are emails and cheap international phone calls and cheap air travel. Ergo, it happens.

What's the betting that in twenty years' time, the best schools in the world (far better than British public schools in Britain) are the British public schools in the Far East? Not at all impossible. After all, the British run Government of Hong Kong was one of the world's best (and much better than the British run Government of Britain), until it was shut down. Why might not the same benign cultural interaction happen again, educationally. Our best teachers will go to these schools, because they will like the eerily good discipline. And their best kids will flock there, because they love the free and easy atmosphere, unlike their local schools where they get beaten to death for Looking At The Teacher In A Funny Way.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:49 PM
Category: The private sector
[1] [0]
July 02, 2003
Numbers games

I've just done a piece for Ubersportingpundit about the way that statistics loom so large in sport generally, and in cricket in particular. I gave it the same title there as I've used for this posting here. At the end I digressed into mentioning how sport encourages boys (especially) to get better at arithmetic.

That's it really. That's my point.

Take cricket. An enormous amount in cricket depends on, to put it bluntly, sums. Sums like: at what rate (runs per over) must the batting side score to get to their target total. If Steve Waugh makes a century, what will that do to his test match average? If England make 550, and Zimbabwe then make 250, and then followed on and make 200, England win by an innings and … what? (The Zimababwe cricket team, like much else in Zimbabwe these days, has been much weakened lately.)

I remember once explaining fractions to a twelve year old boy by talking about a soccer match the previous night. Man United had beaten some hapless rivals by 8 goals to 2. One Man U player scored 4 goals, so he scored half of the Man U goals. Another Man U guy scored 2 goals, so he scored a quarter of the Man U goals. And so on. The big insight was that this poor kid had never connected those damned "fractions" they tormented him with at school with regular and much used English words like "half" and "quarter". Yes, those are fractions. Four divided by eight, four over eight, is a half. Talking about football brought it all alive. I should imagine that there's many a maths teacher who has used sport in this kind of way.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:52 PM
Category: Maths
[3] [0]
July 01, 2003
A different way to learn French

Over at Samizdata, Gabriel Syme links to cet monsieur (?), and it occurs to me that this could be a fun way to learn French. That's if you like the Dissident Frogman's opinions of course.

D-Day, in French, is "Jour-J". Je ne … I never knew that.

Are there any other Anglo-whatever bilingual blogs out there, done along similar lines?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:12 PM
Category: Languages
[1] [0]
Curriculum Bites on BBC3 TV – I'm impressed

I'm watching one of my new digital channels. In the top left corner there is the BBC logo, and wobbling about on top of it a blue and wobbling "C" in a green globule, if that helps at all. The channel is BBC3. I'm watching some things called "Curriculum Bites". This is not it, but it does look like stuff that is supposed to complement what I'm watching.

Two attractive but, it must be said, rather nerdy young people – an older brother and an older sister, you might say – are talking away about the periodic chart of the elements, and they're talking about atoms, outer electrons, sharing of electrons, covalence bonding, and similar things. It's presented as a Socratic dialogue, with a pupil asking instantly intelligent and pertinent questions, and with a teacher (the same age) answering these questions, sometimes preceding his answers with phrases like: "Good question." As the lesson is expounded, the pupil repeats the lesson in slightly different words, to drive the point home. "So, when an electron … blah blah blah." "Yes. That's right. You've got it."

"Hang on . You're going to have to go through that again."

I'm interested that everything is right. These are totally artificial conversations, just begging to be lampooned by the comedians. No mistakes are made, and corrected. I guess that would be confusing, and the viewers might memorise the mistakes. Makes sense.

Behind the young people, the periodic chart itself swirls about, and whenever they have things to say, about, say, all the metals (to the left – I had no idea there were so many) and all the non-metals, the periodic chart emphasises the line dividing the two clumps, and colours change according to what generalisations are being made about which elements. Occasionally, the graphics are replaced by imagery of actual chemical reactions in action. Also, in front of the young people, animated particles swirl about, like magical weightless billiard balls bobbing about in the air, and doing the things that electrons do.

Well, as you can tell, they lost me ten minutes ago. I don't really get all of what they are saying. That I get any of it at all is probably because I was taught some of this stuff forty years ago, by the old fashioned methods not involving TV sets.

Several things impress me about all this.

First, as already said, good use is being made of computer graphics.

Second, thank goodness for the now universal ability of everyone to record material like this, and play it back again and again, with lots of pausing.

Third, making use of the second point, they don't waste time with gobs of dead time. What I have in mind here is the infuriating tendency of more mainstream documentaries to say something, but then to stop for a few seconds and have a stupid picture of our compere driving his car to some important place where someone he wants to talk to lives or works, as if looking at the scenery near where this person lives will somehow help us to understand what he thinks. It won't. This is just slowing things down for the sake of it, in case we get lost.

But in these Curriculum Bites, they don't faff about. They talk, and talk continuously. If you couldn't play it back again, or make these frighteningly well informed and fluent young people pause in their explications, you'd be lost in no time. But of course you can repeat, and you can pause.

The amount of stuff they're getting through per ten minutes is phenomenal. One DVD – and there have to be DVDs – of these Curriculum Bites would contain a vast amount of material. As I've been typing this out there must have been about seven or eight of these little lessons, each of which seems to last about five minutes (and each of which, as I say, communicates as much as the average 45 minute documentary). So if you want to learn chemistry, or science of any kind, it has recently been getting a whole lot easier.

If say, a oldish teenager were to be thoroughly on top of all this stuff, he'd be at least as good at science as I was at that age. If you had all this, and a rather crummy science teacher, that would be the equivalent of having just a good teacher, of the sort I presumably had, but maybe did not. (How do I know?)

It is routine in my part of the blogosphere to denounce the BBC and all its works. But the BBC is a big sprawl of activities and entertainments, many of which are outstanding. Like, it seems to me, these televised Curriculum Bites.

(Instapundit, another favorite of mine for political reasons, made a similar point - but sorry, can't find when - about another Big Media organ much criticised by my favourite pundits, the New York Times. The NYT, said the Big I, has outstanding science and technology coverage.)

Most of the Children's Educational TV I've ever watched until now has been waffly, patronising, uninformative (and probably deeply misleading) nonsense. It's been shot through with the notion that the one thing that teachers should never ever do is teach. But these people are teaching, teaching, teaching, at a rate I've never witnessed before.

I'm very impressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 PM
Category: Technology
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