Category Archive • Brian's education
February 18, 2004
Some more face-to-face learning experiences

More personal recollections, in a way that reinforces this theme (which I also bounced over to Transport Blog), namely why face-to-face contact makes learning things so much easier, and hence why travelling is still such a worthwhile activity, despite all this new gadgetry we now have, much of it of the sort which you might think would make travelling superfluous.

patrick.jpgThis evening I managed to entice Transport Blog supremo Patrick Crozier over to visit me, to explain about how to embed thumbnail pictures in postings. I hope very soon to be concocting a posting for Transport Blog, with lots of thumbnail pictures, which will make use of this knowledge.

Patrick had threatened to email me with the instructions for doing this, but I am extremely glad that instead he was able to call round in person.

There were about half a dozen different button pushings and data inputtings, all of which had to be got right, and only by him watching me do it and heckling me could I be sure that I was getting it all right. Any one of these half dozen things could have gone wrong if I'd done all this for real without Patrick's preparatory tutorial, and if something had gone wrong it would have taken an age to sort it all out.

So far so very helpful, but then in the pub afterwards with Patrick I learned something even more helpful, this time concerning how I could make better use of my Canon A70 digital camera. Crucial to this story is that Patrick also has a Canon A70 digital camera. And what is more he had his with him. And what is even more, I had mine with me. In the pub.

I can't remember why I got talking about my camera. I think I was boasting about some indoor photos I took and stuck up at my Culture Blog, using a tripod to keep the camera still. Ah, said Patrick, there's another thing you can do to deal with that. If you switch the nob on the top from AUTO to P, and then press FUNC, and then press the MF button (which is the lowest one of the four … you know, other buttons that are in a diamond, if you get my drift which you probably don't which is my whole point here) until you get to the bit that says "ISO Speed" and then take it up from 50 to 400, and then take your indoor photos, they'll come out far better.

I didn't have a Flash Card in my camera. If I had, I would have been able to satisfy myself of this truth immediately. As it was, I was able to make the necessary adjustments in the pub but was only able to take some photos after Patrick had gone. Which I did, and very good they looked too.

When people talk about how you ought to "get out more", they're not just talking about you getting drunk more often and propositioning more barmaids and vomitting over more strangers. They are talking about you learning more.

This sort of dialogue can happen in long distance chit chat, over the phone for example. But it is far more likely to happen in face-to-face contact, because when you are face-to-face you talk about all kinds of stuff, and signal all manner of ignorance and invite all kinds of educational comment.

And the other vital thing is that we both had the identical piece of kit. This meant that Patrick could show me then and there what I had to do. Push this, twiddle that, etc. Because here's another Key Point. I have only the dimmest idea of what all that nob-twiddling actually achieved. Had I had to understand the abstract principle being deployed here, which I would have done if I had wanted to get the same principle working on a different digital camera, I doubt if any of this would have worked.

The key point is that I didn't ask Patrick a deliberately targetted question. I was merely rambling, and he then volunteered the information. I didn't know there even was a question.

But of course, now that I have been out (and more to the point, now that Patrick has) I have an actual question to ask Now, distance learning can swing into action, because now I am aware much more precisely of my ignorance. How is it that, whereas before, when I took indoor photos in artificial light, the slightest wobble blurred the picture hopelessly, but now, with my camera's "ISO Speed" set at "400" instead of 50, I was able to take a bunch of amazingly well focussed self portraits simply by holding the camera out and pointing it back at myself, and clicking, with all manner of wobbling going on? I'm guessing that 400 means that the camera opened and shut, so to spea, much more quickly, and hence the wobbling, which was still going on, actually did far less blur damage. Yes? But if that's so, how come the picture still came out properly balanced, instead of nearly pitch black?

And here's another question which I can now ask, this time because I can be reasonably hopeful of understanding the answer. Suppose that, instead of having a thumbnail picture in this text that showed the whole photo of Patrick (only in miniature), I had wanted to have a thumbnail which merely showed Patrick's face, and then when you clicked on it you'd only then get the whole photo. How can that be contrived? I've seen it done. But how is it done?

Answers in the comments section to either of those two questions would be most welcome.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:11 AM
Category: Brian's educationLearning by doing
May 07, 2003
A little learning

I'm off to France for a week, to stay with friends – friends with children, at schools – and friends with a computer. So I may have both things to say and the means to go on saying them.

I hope, then, to sustain my blogging duties here. I'll do my best, but this may be all that I manage today.

As recounted elsewhere, I'm watching a terrifying play on my television called Titus Andronicus, by one William Shakespeare. It is not at all clear to me that watching such a play does me any good, or in any way improves my mind. Were it not by Shakespeare I would have silenced it in horror an hour ago.

Titus seems to have many affinities with King Lear. Titus is Lear. This Cordelia is silent because her tongue has been cut out. Lear's daughters betray him. Titus' sons are killed. Which came first, Lear or Titus? Don't answer that, I can easily find out. Andronicus is early, I learn. The rough stone from which is carved Lear, and Macbeth, and bits of Othello. Antony Hopkins is involved, and there's a distinct hint also of Hannibal Lector.

You live and learn. It's the final feast. What the hell is going to happen now?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:19 AM
Category: Brian's education
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March 21, 2003
Auschwitz

Well here I am, and I didn't miss a day. And for me, it's already been quite a day, let me tell you.

I'm in an internet cafe in Krakow, which is in the south of Poland. This morning I and a handful of others (we'll all be attending the Libertarian Conference here that begins tomorrow morning) were driven to Auschwitz concentration camp - museum, and remains of. Quite an education. It's in two bits, separated by real life, so to speak, in the form of the industrial area where during the war Auschwitz inmates were used as slaves, and where people still now work, but in far more civilised circumstances.

The small bit, Auschwitz itself, Auschwitz I, is where the official museum is. Lots of black and white photos, which is how these events are now most vividly brought back to life and to mind. Heaven knows, this was ghastly enough, but the life of a reasonably well educated person has included a look at a few of such photographs and recollections, and nothing there hit me hard enough to really hurt.

But Auschwitz II, Birkenau, is if anything even more terrible than Auschwitz I, because it is so huge.

The horror of the Holocaust is not only what was done to individual victims of it, but the sheer scale and ambition of the enterprise. And at Birkenau you see this scale. Most of the huts have been ripped down, but the layout of the place remains exactly as it was. And it is big, about the size, I should guess, of somewhere like Fords of Dagenham, or of a medium-sized city airport. Hut after hut after hut, each with its own tale of horror to tell. As we walked, often briskly, at exhausting length, and on a sunny but bitingly cold morning, we all brought what we knew of all this to what we didn't know, which was the size of this damned place. It was all so horribly organised and industrialised. It was a huge storage facility for humans, one of my companions said. A giant filing system, but for people rather than paper.

I could say a lot more in a similar vein, but let me confine myself to an educational angle, as befits this blog.

I don't know quite what I was expecting, but for some silly reason what I was not expecting was that the overwhelming proportion of the visitors would be in the form of quite large parties of very obviously Israeli teenagers. These were either high school or college students, I couldn't tell which and I didn't ask.

At first I stupidly thought that some of these young people might not have been taking everything totally seriously. They were dressed in generation-X logo-decorated late C20 plasticated garb - the garb, in my country, of indifference to such things as grandfathers telling tales of the past. On the other hand, the big blue-on-white Star of David flags said that they were very serious, and indeed they were. As did the identical woolly hats that many of them sported, in exactly matching colours to the colours of their flags. What they looked like, now I think about it, was crowds of football supporters, supporting Israel United, you might say. Oh, they really meant it.

When wandering about in one of the little Auschwitz I buildings, I climbed some stairs at random and encountered a group of about thirty or forty of these people, singing along to a tape recording of Hebrew songs played on what sounded like a accordion. The room was dark and they were in a big triangular shaped circle to fit in the space left by the exhibits, if you get my drift. All were visibly moved, some were in tears and being comforted by friends, perhaps thinking of dead ancestors.

I have already touched lightly on the teaching of history here - sorry I'm not equipped to supply the link back, but it was in connection with a similar matter, namely the Hitlerisation of school history, in Britain. But this was different. This was no mere accident of the syllabus. This was history red in tooth and claw, being drunk in like newly found water in a desert, by the next generation to those that got it in the neck. This was history teaching with a hell of difference, that was going to make a hell of a difference.

I've heard it argued that the state of Israel faces a strategic predicament so difficult that it could end up being totally engulfed, and its citizens being subjected to a new diaspora. But after seeing all those Israeli youngsters with their flags and their songs of sorrow, I have to say that I now doubt this. I don't know how they'll hang on in there, but hang on they are surely determined to do. Everything about them - their presence in this place in the first place, the flags and woolly hats, the singing - said: Never Again. And I'll bet that the older people who were instructing them in loud and mournful voices about what it all was and what it all meant were saying Never Again in those exact words.

Apart from the singers, the other memorable group I chanced upon was the one being told about the exact place, for this is what it was, where the nearest thing to a violent uprising that Birkenau witnessed during its horror years actually took place, one of the very few such places in all of Nazi Europe.

You know the kind of thing. A few dozen inmates, deciding they had nothing to lose, dying with dignity instead of without it. You can imagine it. A major shrine of the soon-to-be born State of Israel, I should suppose.

All very different from education back in Britain. But education nevertheless. And how.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:13 PM
Category: Brian's educationHistory
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March 06, 2003
What is authority?

This piece in telegraph.co.uk by Jonty Driver is interesting. What does authority consist of? Why do some have it and others not?

While some have that personal authority almost as a birthright, others need to learn it. Most inexperienced teachers seem fair game to even well-behaved pupils. It takes confidence to trust the authority of one's position, even in a disciplined institution with clear boundaries.

A defining moment in my career came when I was a young housemaster. In my house was a clever and popular boy, captain of rugby and very much a hero in the school. He was doing no academic work at all, and every effort I made to cajole and - in due course - to force him to work foundered on his charming insouciance. His lazy influence was beginning to affect others in the house, so I asked the headmaster for help. "Tell him to see me," said the head.

Eventually, I took the boy to the headmaster - who happened to be weeding his garden at the time. The boy walked over to the head, who didn't stop weeding. The headmaster spoke - no more than a sentence. The boy stood for a moment, then turned away.

That evening, I found him at his desk, working. By the end of the year, he had a place at Oxford.

"What on earth did you say to him?" I asked the head when the reformation had taken effect. "Oh," said the head, cheerfully, "I told him to stop being such a bloody fool, and to get down to some work. That's all.''

And I do think that was all: it was the head's sheer natural authority - or call it personality, if you will - that did the trick. It made me realise that I had been trying too hard: what was required wasn't reason, or logic, or the apparatus of discipline (detentions, extra lessons, gatings), but just some straightforward authority.

One answer, of the sort you might expect here, is that this kind of "authority" is something that one should not attempt to exercise. And indeed, having been to one of these places myself, I can tell you that this is not the kind of school I would ever want to teach at. Very few of the pupils have much say either in whether they are there in the first place, or, once there, what they do from one hour to the next. The system ordains, and they obey, until they are old enough to be allowed to decide things for themselves, at which point many of them have had this trick beaten out of them so thoroughly that they have to spend the next five years learning it.

I know what I'm talking about with this syndrome. I used to be one of these posh but dim school leavers, and I'm now an occasional, amateur (but quite effective) career counsellor. Time and again this is the central agenda that I and my customer now find ourselves addressing. Well brought up English people are all too liable simply never to have mastered the trick of running their own lives and making their own big life decisions. Instead of truly deciding for themselves, they just do the obvious next thing supplied by the world around them. Which is okay, until it goes wrong and they find that they have to really think about what they would really like to do (because suddenly it is a struggle and only certain struggles are worth the struggle), and they realise they don't know how to think for themselves. Years of being subjected to the sort of "authority" described by the likes of Jonty Driver and his Headmaster can do that to you. Still, they mostly know how to think for other people, that is to say they know how to think, so the situation is usually quite easily corrected.

So far so libertarian. But, my libertarian duty done, I still find that the idea of "authority" means something. After all, even if everyone present at an event has chosen to be present and is not being coerced to remain, there are still some events which are bossed authoritatively, and which are thus pleasing and relaxing to be at and thus attract repeat business, and other events which are bossed badly, and hence which are stressful to attend, and those events fail or fizzle out. So, what is "authority"? How do you do "authority"?

Although the aptly named Mr Driver tells us that authority can be learned, he has no space in his short newspaper piece to tell us how, or to go into very much detail about what exactly authority consists of, other than noting that his headmaster just, you know, had it.

The mysteriously all powerful headmaster whose lightest word is immutable law is a stock figure of school fiction, and that's because this isn't only fiction. Headmasters are often just like that for real.

Why? How do they do it? Can authority be learned? Can authority, that is to say, be broken down into a decent number of understandable procedures that go beyond repeating the question by rephrasing it as "common sense" or some such vacuity?

I'm certain that authority can be learned. I write as one of those people – very common in the political world – who was not born with any natural authority to speak of, and who was when young mostly bossed about by his bigger and bossier contemporaries, but who nevertheless wanted to have authority, and who has gradually learned how to do authority as the years have gone by and as the experiences have piled up.

And – oh dear – I'm starting to run out of time. I just had a date, which sounds a lot more exciting than it was, but it took up most of the evening. So I'll call it a day for today, and start in on actually answering the question I started with … Real Soon Now, and hopefully tomorrow. I don't want to rush it. Apologies if I got your hopes up for an instant answer. Please be patient.

But, I do have time to tell you this, although it's a change of subject. Education Minister Charles Clarke is on Question Time just now, and it seems he went to a posh school, not the ghastly lower class educational sewer I was hinting at in my previous posting. His grizzly grey beard, his sticking out ears and his bulky figure make him look like a night club bouncer. But now I've heard him talking, and heard one of the others talking about the fact that Charles Clarke went to a posh school, which pretty much settles it. Think eccentric barrister. That's more the kind of person he is. Apologies for that also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:48 PM
Category: Brian's educationThis and that
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March 04, 2003
There's more to training than training

In a comment on this posting here last month, a distinction was made between "education" and "training", by Kamen Rider. But I wonder how genuine this distinction is. How much do these two words describe truly different activities, and how much do they merely describe different aspects of the same process? For even as one is being "trained" to do something or other, one also has a mind that is working away, learning more elusive and subtle lessons than the mere behavioural patterns one is also acquiring.

At the end of last week I was preoccupied with DIY. More CD shelves to be exact. And this reminded me of an educational- stroke-training episode deep in my past.

I went to one of those posh preparatory schools in the home counties of southern England, and one term, for some reason, a bus load of us were sent off to have weekly woodwork classes, under the supervision of a type of person we seldom encountered in the normal course of our lives. He was an aristocrat of labour, a classic NCO type. Under his watchful eye we learned sawing, and dovetailing, and glueing, and we all ended up with small wooden pencil boxes. I think I still have mine somewhere.

The same experience affects different pupils in very different ways, so I can't speak for the others. But I learned a lot from this man, who I thought then and still think was most impressive. I learned some carpentry techniques of the sort I still use, when erecting CD shelves for example. I got some training, in other words. But I also learned an attitude towards doing work which I had never come across before.

This man was obsessed with getting things right and doing things right. For him, technical correctness was a moral issue. People who put saw cuts through the middle of the line, instead of next to a line and on the correct side of the line in the way one should, were not just incompetent. They were wicked.

So, I was learning both some good carpentry habits, and I was imbibing something more like a whole attitude to life, and learning about a sort of person whom I had until then imagined not to exist, or to be motivated only by the most shallow and small-minded of motives. That a man could combine proletarian speaking habits and technical rather than "educated" interests with the moral passion of an Old Testament prophet was all new stuff to me, and it might still startle me a little if I came across it now. Training and education.

And what about those Kumon kids, who's mere "training" Kamen Rider was commenting on? Well, for some of the children I watched doing Kumon maths, there was a great deal more involved than merely picking up a few maths skills.

I recall a rather quiet, rather arkward boy, tending towards plumpness, by the name of Graham. Graham showed up at our Kumon classes, and did the sums as requested. He had very little to say for himself, but that didn't bother us. Talking is not part of the Kumon deal.

Only later did we discover that Graham's whole life had apparently been transformed for the better. His parents were much more stylish and articulate people than their son, quicker of mind and tongue than him, and, frankly, they were rather embarrassed by very ordinary-seeming child. What was wrong with him? How had they, such sparkling persons, had such uninspiring offspring? And of course this only made Graham all the more depressed and arkward. That seemed to be the picture.

And then Graham started doing Kumon, and turning in those near perfect scores that all Kumon kids get – because if they don't get near perfect scores they are doing the wrong sums. Finally, Graham realised that he was not this incompetent waste of space that his parents were so carefully not saying that they thought he was. His whole attitude towards life was transformed. He became more confident, more outgoing. He stopped apologising for being alive, and started to really live.

Graham's story is not at all an uncommon in Kumon. The way that children are "trained" to do maths (and a great many other things) in regular schools can do awful things to their confidence, in ways that affect a great deal more than their mere exam results. And correspondingly, good maths training of the sort that Kumon supplies can do a lot more than get a kid through some exams.

I wonder if "training" is ever only training.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:08 PM
Category: Brian's education
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January 24, 2003
Brian needing some education

I will now exploit the ambiguity of my blog's title by emphasising the Brian's Education aspect of it.

I need to understand better than I do what is meant by the words "permalink" and "trackback". I do links to other blogs by just mousing around until I find something that seems like a link, and then later I check that this does indeed take my readers to the posting I'm referring to. But is there a system that automatically tells the linkee that this has happened? I get e-mails about how people have linked to me, sometimes. How does all that work? On this blog I have the time of the posting, which seems to be a link of some kind, and then a trackback, but no permalink. Is the time bit the permalink but called something different here. And what is a trackback?

You can tell that other people did all the setting up of this, can't you? I once asked Perry de Havilland of Samizdata about this stuff but couldn't understand his answer, so I thought I'd try you lot.

Someone, please educate me. Thanks in advance for any comments.

But please don't anyone say that it's up to me to discover it all for myself, and that your job is merely to enable me to do this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:44 PM
Category: Brian's educationTechnology
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January 12, 2003
"Why is the sky dark at night?"

Well, my talk on Friday night seemed to go well, indeed I was surprised at how well it went. (No need for a link. Just scroll down for the other relevant posting here.)

In my experience, giving a talk to an audience all of whom know you, as turned out to be the case for me that night, can be a serious let-down. They already know your rhetorical devices, jokes, comic mannerisms, and basic ways of thinking. What to people hearing you for the first time might be quite funny, charming, illuminating, even profound, can come over as merely dull. If they are friends, they may face the additional problem of how not to tell you this too bluntly afterwards. Plus, they're thinking: my god, if he's one of our cleverer and sparklier people, how stupid and dull must we be? Not good. An unknown visitor, however mediocre, would have been far preferable.

But, unless I am seriously deluding myself, it wasn't nearly that bad last Friday night. Why not? Because of blogging. Blogging has educated me a lot during the last year. As a result of it I had new things to tell these people, new experiences, new stories, new thoughts.

One new thought in particular which I found myself clarifying concerned the immense virtue of –and of course I've been getting a bit ahead of myself - visiting lecturers, occasional teachers, here-today-gone-tomorrow pedagogues. It is sometimes said that you can't teach unless you are prepared to settle down for the long haul, commit yourself, stick around, blah blah. Well, not all blah blah, of course. All establishments need loyal staff and regular workers to keep them ticking over, year after year. But the visiting teacher can also contribute mightily.

I reminisced about a talk given at my school some time in the nineteen sixties, by a man called Herman Bondi, who was then the Chief Scientific Adviser (or some such grand title) to the British Government, no less. Lesson one was what a funny little bloke he was, dressed no better than I was last Friday night. So, right off, we all learned something, those of us who didn't know it already. In order to become something like a Chief Scientific Adviser to a Government, you didn't have to look like a film star.

Bondi talked about the Theory of the Universe. He covered a blackboard with common-sense statements like: the universe is the same density throughout. The universe isn't moving in an particular direction, any more than the tea in a tea cup is going anywhere.

And then he said: "Why is the sky dark at night?"

Because you see, he went on to explain, if all this stuff on the blackboard here is true, then no matter where you look, even at night, you ought to see a star. You ought to see light. So: "Why is the sky dark at night?"

By the end of his talk he had us all convinced of the Expanding Universe Theory. And then he buggered off back to London or wherever it was he'd come from and we none of us set eyes on the man ever again.

My point being: I've never forgotten it. I still treasure the memory of that talk. (It probably also helped that no one was going to test us to see if we'd listened properly.)

Bondi's talk didn't turn me into a scientist, but it did turn me into a lifelong science fan. It taught me that one of the great things about scientists is, not just their enthusiasm to discover obscure things, but their ability also to register amazement at the commonplace. Commonplace facts like the fact of gravity. We all know that "gravity" – or something like it – is a fact. But what is it? What, deep down, does "gravity" – this bizarre tendency of things to fall to the ground for no apparent reason – actually consist of? It takes an Isaac Newton to think like that, at a time when people as a whole tended not to and even to forbid themselves from such thoughts, and to carry on thinking like that until he had an answer that satisfied him.

Bondi may have inspired some in his audience that day to become practising scientists, but not me. What he did for me was not to tell me anything about how to make money or be more "successful". What he did for me was make the times I already found myself living in more interesting and entertaining and profound and enjoyable. Bondi didn't teach me anything about how to get what I liked. But he did teach me about how to like what I had already got – the life of an educated citizen of the then twentieth century – that little bit more, which is really something, I think.

That last point in particular (about teaching me to enjoy my existing life rather than anything about how to get a better one) is something I had never nailed down in my own mind until I heard myself saying it in my talk. And it is, I suggest, a pretty important point about the meaning of the word "education".

As I say, the same bloke droning on yet again can sometimes work, but there's nothing quite like a visiting shooting star for lighting up the world. Failing that, if you are that same bloke droning on, at least try to talk sometimes about different stuff from your usual stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:40 PM
Category: Brian's education
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November 26, 2002
Learning and foolishness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments anyone?

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

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

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

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