E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages.  
Category Archive • Relevance
November 28, 2004
Actor schools versus regular schools

The Telegraph reports on an interesting, and if you are the worrying sort (as I am basically not), :worrying report about the rise and rise of stage schools:

Some of the most famous actors and actresses in Britain are warning parents not to send their children to stage school because they say that many provide poor training and exploit pupils commercially.

The actors, including Richard Griffiths, Samantha Bond, Julian Glover, Paul McGann and Sam West, say that even children desperate to act would do better to complete a conventional education first.

The reason, they say, is that some stage schools are more concerned with making money than with teaching.

The actors' concern, which is shared by the National Council for Drama Training, has been prompted by a sharp increase in the number of full- and part-time drama schools catering for children, some as young as four.

An obsession with fame and popular culture generated by television programmes such as Big Brother and Pop Idol has been cited as one reason for the increase in the number of courses, and some schools have their own theatrical agencies. The theatrical directory Contacts 2005 lists hundreds of full- or part-time children's courses at fees of up to £7,000 a year.

Sam West, who starred in Howard's End and the BBC's Cambridge Spies series, said that many schools were little more than "glorified modelling agencies" which, at best, were interested only in children who would look good on television and could make it as presenters.

I wonder. Isn't the underlying truth here that almost nobody, statistically speaking, makes it as a successful actor, so no matter what you do to become an actor it will probably fail, and the more people try this, the more true this will be.

So the big question becomes, is actor training a worse education than "conventional education", and I'm not persauded that it's any worse. We are constantly bombarded nowadays with the claim that our economy is becoming less about making things and more about "service", and that's because it's presumably true. And is not "service" a lot to do with presenting yourself to others – audiences you might say – in whatever way will be most appreciated. Trade after trade nowadays, it is constantly said, is "all about presentation".

I reckon all those little failed actors might turn out to be just as useful as all the failed Sam Wests who now roam the earth, with their heads full of drama texts and just bursting to write essays about everything, of a sort that only other essay writers want to read, and not many of them because they are too busy writing their own essays?

I also think that there is a lot to be said in favour of children being exploited commercially much more than they are now. It's called work, and I think children become insufferable little drones if they do not do any of this. But, if they do do work, they ought to be paid, i.e. "exploited".

For many children, might actor schooling not be just a way to avoid the grind of regular education and to do something fun instead? This Telegraph report certainly suggests that there is great enthusiasm for these places. Also, it is probably better exercise, something which conventional education has been doing huge damage to in recent years.

More generally, I wonder what impact all these actor schools will have upon the wider culture. (Think about the impact that art colleges have had, for example on pop music. These are similarly useless places on the face of it.) What sort of things does actor training prepare you to do, assuming what you do will not be doing much in the way of normal acting in theatres, films, etc.? In the future, there will surely be entire new industries as yet undreamed of, that will make use of all these ever more widely dispersed drama skills.

For instance, what happens to global culture when it becomes as easy to converse on television, so to speak, as it now is to converse over the phone? Actor training will be quite a good preparation for that. As more and more of everyday life becomes like a performance, actor school alumni may actually find themselves at a competitive advantage.

Perhaps all these actors will fan out across the globe and become English as a Foreign Language teachers. Quite good ones, I mean. Teaching Indians and Chinese how to to TV telephoning to the white Anglosphere.

Just a few thoughts, from a useless essayist.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 PM
Category: RelevanceTraining
[0] [0]
October 11, 2004
Jo-Anne Nadler finds that she is better qualified than she had realised

I have been reading Jo-Anne Nadler's Too Nice to be a Tory, which is an autobiographical essay about the predicament of … well, it's obvious. Here is how she describes (pp. 91-92) that portentous moment when, fresh out of York University, she goes back to London and gets her first proper job.

JoAnneNadler.jpg'How would you win back the audience we've lost to Capital Radio?'

It was the clincher question in my third and final round of interviews for a job as a trainee producer with Radio 1. Resting on my answer was the prospect of a fairly swanky opening straight out of college. I was shifting nervously, feeling rather sweaty, considering my response. My interrogator was one of three facing me in a deliberately intimidating configuration beloved of the BBC. He went on, 'You know the type, the skilled working class around the outskirts of the M25, out every Friday night at the Epping Forest Country Club, drives a Cortina, furry dice in the back of the car, but it's always independent radio tuned in at the front. What are we going to do about it?'

'Play more Luther Vandross!'

It seemed the obvious answer. It was certainly true that Essex Man liked soul music, of which London's independent station Capital Radio played a lot, while Radio 1 was wall-to-wall Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and the Travelling Wilburys. While I had been a temporarily displaced Londoner myself it had always been a blessed relief to hit Elstree at the bottom of the A1 on the drive home from York. Here was the chance to tune out of Radio 1 and the dirge of ageing hippy rockers and into loud, brash 'dancey' Capital. It was the sign that I was home, in radio terms back in the land of the living. Unsurprisingly I did not add that observation in my response just as I had not played up my YC past when outlining my suitability for the job. Whatever the reality it hardly spelt sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

I had applied for the job during my final term at university almost as a joke but, without trying, I had apparently obtained the necessary qualifications; an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music, I had run the campus radio station, I was articulate, ambitious and female – which had marked me out among the applicants. And so, to my great surprise, I was in.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:29 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsRelevance
[0] [0]
May 13, 2004
"He carried on as if he were still in school …"

I've already quoted here from How To Be A Star at Work by Robert E. Kelley on the subject of Dwight D. Eisenhower's mentor relationship with a superior which helped him learn the ropes of military bureaucracy. Here's another quote from that same book, which emphasises a regular theme here, which is the way that schools, by their nature, are not good at teaching you how to work cooperatively. The good news is that Kelley, unlike even most of his "Star" cooperators and initiative-takers, reckons that he can teach this.

When Lai and Henry were hired at Bell Labs, they had very similar credentials: 3.8 GPAs from top-ranked electrical engineering programs, summer internships at computer companies, and glowing recommendations from professors. Yet each took a very different approach to the assignment they were given for their first six months. In the morning, they took classes in telephone technology and in the methods Bell Labs uses to conduct its work. Afternoons were spent on break-in projects – work that needed to be done but would not jeopardize crudal projects if done badly.

Henry holed himself up in his office as if he were writing his dissertation or studying for a bar exam. He collected volumes of technical documents to acquaint himself with the latest ideas. He began learning how to use exotic software programs he thought might be helpful in his work. He would surface only for a bathroom break or a mandatory staff meeting. "What's going to count," he remembers thinking at the time, "is whether I can prove to my coworkers how technically smart I am."

Lai set aside three hours each afternoon to work on her assignment. In whatever time was left of her workday, she introduced herself to coworkers and asked questions about their projects. If one of them needed a hand or was facing schedule pressures, she volunteered to help. And even though Lai was new to the workplace culture, her colleagues appreciated her willingness to help them out, especially given that their problems were not hers.

One afternoon, a colleague couldn't get a program to work in a software project that was due the next week. Lai thought that a new programming tool that she had picked up in an advanced course could handle the problem. She offered to work on a solution while her colleague focused on the larger project. Her coworker was grateful to have help fixing the program so that he could keep to his schedule, and he also appreciated the information on the new tool.

When some sophisticated software tools needed to be installed in everyone's office PCs, the traditional but very unproductive company process forced each person to install it by trial and error. Lai had experienced the same cumbersome installation process during an internship and thought it made more sense for one person to do it for all the machines. Since no one was specifically responsible for the work, she stepped forward to take on the job. When it turned out to be tougher than she realized, requiring two weeks rather than the four days she had planned, Lai could have backed off, but she saw it through.

"Once I got up the learning curve, it seemed silly to make everyone else go through the pain I did," she says. Volunteering for the project forced her to come in early and stay late for several days so that neither her work assignment nor her class work would suffer.

On another occasion, a colleague who had been scheduled for a dreaded all-night lab testing session had to attend an out-of-town funeral, and another staffer had to fill in. More physically than technically demanding, these sessions take place from midnight to 7:00 a.m., the only period when the computers can be freed up to accommodate large-scale testing. At a hastily called staff meeting, the veterans kidded one another about grabbing the "plum assignment." At the point where the staff expected the supervisor to assign someone arbitrarily, Lai volunteered.

"I figured that it was most important to get accepted into the team, and what better way than to help them out?" she said.

Even the drudge work of a midnight shift, she said, was like a mini-apprenticeship. "I got a quick peek into the work they were doing and what kind of things I would need to know. Sure, some of the work I did for them was grunt and gopher stuff, but ... to meet the schedules, they needed a hand. Since my schedule was more flexible than others', it made sense for me to help out. Plus, they got to know me and my capabilities."

After six months, both Henry and Lai had finished their technical classes and their first assignments. Both of their projects were successful and judged to be technically competent. Indeed, Henry's work may have been slightly more technically proficient than Lai's.

But when it came to workplace reputation, Henry came up short. While he was known as a nice guy, he also was pegged as a loner. Henry was seen as technically adept, but there were question marks about his ability to share his skills with coworkers. He carried on as if he were still in school, where individual performance is the rule, Lai was seen as an initiative taker, someone who saw a problem that was not her responsibility and stepped forward to solve it. Lai had been able to create the impression of being in the lab group for much longer than six months. Managers noticed this, of course, and already were looking at her as a candidate for fast-track assignments.

Our observations of Henry, Lai, and dozens of other Bell Labs engineers show that any newcomer in a unit of professionally skilled, competitive workers must demonstrate the initiative skill within the first six to twelve months. Otherwise, the new hire will be relegated to the pack – labeled, perhaps, like Henry, as competent but not productive in ways that benefit the group. In the late 1980s, when managers across the country were forced to cut staffs, the workers who hadn't shown initiative, like Henry, were often vulnerable.

Yet learning how to take initiative effectively is not taught in school or even in the workplaces that now demand it. Even where it is taught, learning on the job is not easy. Stars have the initiative moves down, but most can't teach them to others.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:42 PM
Category: Relevance
[4] [0]
February 09, 2004
The government is bringing back apprenticeships

I know it's a government initiative, but this has got to be a step in the right direction, for the British economy, and for education:

Thousands of children from the age of 14 are to be offered apprenticeships, allowing them to leave the classroom and learn a trade.

Ministers are to announce a new "junior apprenticeship" scheme next month under which 14 to 16-year-olds can spend two days a week at work, one day at college and two days in school. They will learn on the job from skilled workers such as plumbers, joiners, electricians and IT operators.

A briefing note by the Department for Education and Skills says that thousands of 14 and 15-year-olds will be given the opportunity to go out to work as part of the scheme.

The scheme is seen as part of an attempt to plug the skills gap in the United Kingdom that has left industry short of skilled workers. Employers say that one in ten employees are "incompetent". Ministers believe the scheme will also help combat truancy.

For once I agree with those "Ministers". Anything which widens the available options for bored teenagers yearning to be free has to be a good thing.

Which doesn't mean the government won't find a way to balls it up. But despite that obvious prejudice, I'm still glad that our rulers are thinking along these lines. After all, the lives of the kids who give this a try are already totally nationalised, so it's hard to see how this could make things any worse. I know, I know, they'll find a way. But I still say: good luck and I hope it works.

Some teachers, naturally, are worried.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:41 PM
Category: CompulsionRelevance
[1] [0]
December 29, 2003
On doing nothing – and on what cookies are

I have recently had another of those episodes known in the USA as a learning experience.

For some mysterious reason, after Michael Jennings had logged into Samizdata and done a posting under the heading of "Samizdata Illuminatus", when I later logged in as myself, what I then posted also appeared under the moniker of Illuminatus. I didn't realise this, but Michael spotted it, changed the heading to me, and informed me of the oddity.

I then broke one of the cardinal rules of computer use, which goes: if you have a problem which you do not understand, do not try to unleash a solution which you do not understand. (I'm sure that many far wiser heads than I have formulated this as a Law and given it a name.)

Despite being baffled by what was going on, I tried to correct matters.

It doesn't matter how. Suffice it to say that I made the situation a lot worse, and not just for myself. Whether I have now truly learned this lesson remains to be seen. We will only know for sure next time I have a puzzling problem with my computer, and either create more havoc, or make the wise decision to do nothing and seek help. Would that I had done the latter this time around. I "knew" this Law already. But I didn't know it well enough, I now realise. When I most needed to pay attention to it, it wasn't there at the front of my mind, shouting at me to stop. (See also comment number one here.)

The second thing I learned is something of the meaning of the word "cookie" in a computing context. I didn't learn very much, just something. This learning experience took place by talking to Michael about what was wrong, at any rate as far as me posting stuff on Samizdata was concerned, and then watching him correct that when he kindly visited me this morning.

I find it hard to learn anything about computers unless I have to, either to get something very good done, or, as in this case, to correct something very bad. There's just too much of a general, you-never-know-when-it-might-come-in-handy nature to ever be able to learn, without a carrot in front of you or a stick up your backside. That's what I find anyway. But I get enough good stuff from my computer, and into enough difficulties from time to time, to learn lots anyway. Too bad that the latter process sometimes also involves learning what I should not have done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:25 PM
Category: BloggingLearning by doingRelevance
[0] [0]
September 19, 2003
Work Experience, Real Life, etc.

For me there's no question that the best current article about the realities of education, self-advancement etc., is this one in the latest Spectator. I've not read all the other recent education articles doing the rounds, but if any of them are nearly as good as this one I'd be amazed. And I only got to this piece because Jonathan Pearce linked to another piece in the same issue about the BBC.

Rather than doing the lazy thing and just copying, pasting, commenting, and leaving it at that, let me try to show a bit of initiative.

What the piece says is that now that exam results have becomes so uniformly good, and hence meaningless, the new bit of the juvenile CV which can maybe make a real difference is now "work experience". But not just any old work experience. It has to be posh work experience, with some grand city business or publishing firm that future employers may actually have heard of. Merely working, at Sainsbury's won't get you ahead of the pack when that first real job interview comes along.

Time for just a little copying and pasting:

'In the past six months I’ve had a letter a week requesting work experience, and I usually try to interview about a third of them,' sighed Miss Dawnay. 'So I’ll call them up and ask them to come in on, say, Thursday at 11 a.m. And then they will drawl, 'Fine ... what’s your address?' I always want to scream, 'Do you have any idea how much it will cost me in lost time to read it out?'

Maybe that's what Miss Dawnay should have done. If she had, that would really have been work experience. It would have taken just as long, but she might have enjoyed it more, and the snot might actually have learned something. Well, probably better to break these things to them gently.

I was one of these under-experienced O- and A-level laden little annoyances once. And the one time when I got a realistic sense of exactly how much use I was in that office I infested as a teenager was when one of those work-at-sixteen evening-classes didn't-have-your-advantages blokes in a suit with a mortgage actually lost his temper and told me. No bloody use at all. I'm only putting up with you because my bloody boss, whom your bloody parents nobbled, told me to.

I don't really know what is the answer to all this, although I'm doing lots of good reading about such matters and may be able to tell you all in a year or two.

Meanwhile … you're never going to stop parents trying to wangle unfair advantages for their children, and why would you really want to?

If you keep teenagers away from Real Life, on the grounds that Real Life finds them too annoying, then the teenagers remain ignorant of it until they emerge from University, and the facts of Real Life hit them all in a rush. They have to learn sooner or later, and someone has to put up with them while they do.

My preferred answer is the whole radical TCS-type agenda, which lets children take charge of their own lives just as soon as they are inclined, choose their own work, school (if they want a school), and in general their lives, from the available alternatives. That way, they get their first non-parental bollocking for being too annoying and self-centred (if they have been) at about the age of five from some guy selling hot-dogs, and they learn continuously about Real Life (which really just means other people) by not ever being seriously separated from it (them). The teenagers I've know who have best combined having plenty of self-confidence with hardly being annoying and self-centred in a bad way at all, giving off a sense that your time and efforts might be as valuable to you as their time and efforts are valuable to them, are those who've been raised this way.

As it is, you either get teenagers who still have a bit of spirit, but no Real World knowledge, or teenagers with bags of Real World knowledge, but who only have it because that's all they have. They've had all the spirit kicked out of them by people only losing their tempers with them and telling them they're useless, and nothing else.

As for the fact that people now spend longer and longer accumulating CV stuff instead of actually doing real Real Life things, well, stay tuned about that also.

(If and when TCS-like ideas become the orthodoxy, will they then, in a bungled form, merely become a new arena of parental concern? "Live your own life! Be free! Do interesting things that employers will be impressed by! Don't just sit at home studying! Don't wait for us to tell you what to do!" Oh well. No doubt the TCS people have thought that syndrome through.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsParents and childrenRelevance
[4] [0]
June 04, 2003
Jonathan Wilde (and me) on the (non-)value of a PhD

Jonathan Wilde emails thus:

I am a big fan of your education blog. …

A big fan. There you go, I have big fans. The desire to flatter is flattery itself, I always say. So what do I have to do for you, JW? Oh yes …

… I have made a post on the value of a PhD that you might be interested in on my blog.…

… link to your post and say things about it. Fair enough.

Opening paragraph:

How many times have you heard someone say, "The solution is education," in response to an endless list of social problems. Or, "Society needs educated people in order to thrive," or "The best thing we can do for the youth of America is give them a proper education"? Education is often regarded as the modern day panacea for societal ills. Pick a problem, any problem, watch some TV, and a talking head will propose education as the solution.

But Wilde goes on to note that, according to some, one of the biggest educational problems these days is the over-production of people with PhDs.

Wilde's piece is about the subjectivity of value – the value of things generally and the value to an employer of higher education in particular – and about the fact that all these excessive numbers of people with PhDs think they have something of "objective" value, but are mistaken.

Concluding paragraphs:

And the key point is this – what the employer values in an employee is completely subjective. As circumstances change, what the employer seeks in an employee changes. Just ask any computer programmer who was raking it in three years ago but cannot find a job today. The mistake that the PhD degree seekers often make is believing that by getting a PhD, they are getting objective economic value. They believe that after 4 years of college, 5 or more years spent pursuing a PhD, being published in journals, and writing and defending a thesis in front of scholars of their chosen field, they have something that is intrinsically valuable.

But as the Austrian school reveals, nothing is intrinsically valuable. Nothing has objective economic value. Job training, specialization, postgraduate degrees, certification, etc are only valuable if others value them enough to exchange wages for the labor of those who obtain them.

And of course, the larger question is – if education is to be the cure all for society's ills, how can a top-down structure ensure by design that employers value the skills and training obtained by graduates?

Indeed.

Moving off at a tangent somewhat (i.e. changing the subject almost totally), it seems to me that what we have here is also a confusion between the permanent (if still subjective and maybe over-produced) value of some item of actual education, some actual acquired ability, and the temporarily useful but soon overtaken-by-events sign that one is up at the front of some queue to demonstrate some combination of clevernesses such as one always had but needed somehow to prove. As soon as lots of people have PhDs, having a PhD ceases to prove that you are at the front of the PhD queue, merely someone who is in it..

For what it is worth, what I hear now (and that means that this could already be way out of date) is that the current big "meal ticket for life" qualification is being in or having been in one of the big name management consultancies. But give it ten years, and ex-McKinseyites (who all swallowed the claim that McKinseyness would indeed be a meal-ticket for life and who were thus hired for crap wages in vast numbers by McKinsey and used to clean their toilets and carry the luggage of the real McKinseyites and who barged in on the real McKinsey business and thus without realising it ruined McKinsey as a star enterprise and turned it into a mere brand-X enterprise) will likewise be flooding the labour market, and mostly likewise be unemployable. Not least because they were too stupid to see that this was happening.

This is a particular example of the general law, famously stated by somebody very important whose name I can't remember, that as soon as some particular variable is publicly identified as the way to measure something, it ceases to measure it, or for that matter to measure anything much at all. Something like that. That's a principle that applies to educational "results" of all kinds, not just PhDs.

Have a nice day.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:15 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsRelevance
[3] [0]
May 19, 2003
Theodore Dalrymple on education

When I returned from my trip to France on Wednesday of last week, I brought with me a copy of Theodore Dalrymple's book Life at the Bottom, kindly lent to me by my hosts out there. It paints a picture of a class who, with their mere physical survival needs taken care of, and with their brains rotted by second-hand versions of bad liberal intelligensia ideas (don't be "judgemental" - sexually anything goes (or should go) - criminals are not to blame for their crimes, and so on), have descended into a hell on earth.

The moral for those of us concerned about education and its alleged failures in recent decades is that if isn't fair only to blame teachers for the failure of education to get very much better. If the underclass is both sinking into hell and expanding in numbers, it is hardly reasonable merely to blame teachers for people not knowing to the nearest two centuries when the Second World War occurred, or who fought the Battle of Hastings and why, or what six times seven is.

If you talk to an average teacher, this is pretty much what he will tell you. The world is going to hell, so don't blame us for everything.

But Dalrymple doesn't exclude educators from his criticisms, or to be more exact he does not exclude liberal intelligensia thinking about education. He notes that his father, who was born in a slum, singled out for his particular gratitude certain teachers for having shown him that there was a better world beyond the one he was born into. Chapter Seven of Dalrymple's book is entitled "We Don't Want No Education". It's final paragraph reads thus:

In one sense (and in one sense alone), however, the underclass has been victimized, or perhaps betrayed is a better word. The educational absurdities foisted on the lower orders were the idea not of the lower orders themselves but of those who were in a position to avoid their baleful effects: that is to say, middle-class intellectuals. If I were inclined to paranoia (which fortunately I am not), I should say that the efforts of educationists were part of a giant plot by the middle classes to keep power for themselves and to restrict competition, in the process creating sinecures for some of their less able and dynamic members – namely the educationists. But if these middle classes have maintained their power, it is in an increasingly enfeebled and impoverished country.

So you can see how educationists wouldn't want use Dalrymple to excuse their failures, even though to some extent he does, for to him they are part of a larger picture of intelligensia and administrative class failure.

Dalrymple in particular denounces the idea of "relevance". The more I read of the thoughts about education of others, the more I keep coming across this idea that education is about more than just getting a good job, but furthermore that this "more than" is also a matter of huge economic significance. Education does not necessarily abolish your poverty, but it may make it far easier to bear. It means, in other words, that happiness will cost you less.

A man with an interest or pursue, or at least with the mental equipment to pursue an interest, is not in such dire straits as a man obliged by the tabula rasa of his mind to stare vacantly at the four walls for weeks, months, or years on end.

I know the feeling. Doing this blog can sometimes be a bit of a slog, but it certainly beats staring at the wall.

But Dalrymple immediately adds that a man with plenty of irrelevant education is also likely to get a better job. Irrelevant education, in other words, is actually very relevant indeed.

He is far more likely to come up with an idea for self-employment, or at the very least to seek work in places and in fields that are new to him. He is not condemned to stagnation.

… which is also part of the idea of this, for me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:04 PM
Category: Liberal educationRelevance
[4] [0]