Category Archive • Learning by doing
January 26, 2005
Paul Graham on taking charge early

My thanks to Michael Jennings for emailing me the link to this speech to some high school kids (which he never actually gave) by Paul Graham.

I like, in particular, how the speech ends:

… you don't have to wait to start. In fact, you don't have to wait to be an adult. There's no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.

This may sound like bullshit. I'm just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it's restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

The only real difference between adults and high school kids is that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school kids don't. That realization hits most people around 23. But I'm letting you in on the secret early. So get to work. Maybe you can be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn't how much time you wasted.

If I had to sum up my ambitions as a teacher, I would probably do it by saying that my ambition is either to help my pupils to live their lives, or persuade them to start their lives.

I of course regret that I didn't start my life, in Graham's sense, until I too was 23 or thenabouts.

I do have a one particular quibble with this quote, which is that I feel that the phrase "take responsibility" is not quite right. It suggests that the point of this exercise is that you will be able to justify what you have done to a third party, when that actually isn't the point. I prefer simply: take charge. Make decisions. Look at your actual options, and choose good ones. Look at your problems and tackle them rationally instead of just moaning and regarding them as insoluble. And do all this because, if you do, your own life will work better, not because some third party stroke boss will be impressed, which is what "take responsibility" suggests to me.

Which, by the way, explains why politicians are so fond of this phrase. They want people to take "responsibility" for things, and they will then decide if they are impressed. Conservative politicians, with their deeply ambivalent attitude towards freedom, are particularly fond of this phrase. We trust the people to decide for themselves, they say. But the people still remain "responsible" for the result, to them.

But my guess would be that what Graham means by "take responsibility" is what I mean by "take charge", and no more. And, it occurs to me, the word "charge" could give off just the same vibes to others as "responsibility" does for me.

Anyway, getting past words to meaning, the trouble is that management, even self-management, can be hard. And if someone else is managing your life agreeably, why bother to change what is basically a comfortable arrangement? The answer is of course that sooner or later you will have to manage your own life, and why not start learning how to do that good and early, by starting to do it, for the same reason that it helps to learn how to read and arithmetise early?

One of the recurring themes of Successful Person biographies is that the early circumstances of their lives - often involving disastrously incompetent (or simply dead) parents - oblige the future Successful Person to take charge of his own life, at a very young age. And often other lives too, such as younger siblings, or overwhelmed or sick mothers, etc. (Charles Dickens and Aristotle Onassis spring to mind.) Start doing this when you are only ten, and you get a decade's start at Real Life compared to the herd.

Much of current education and (particularly older) child rearing practice seems calculated to postpone this process ever further into the future. And then the adults hit the 23 (or more) year old with the whole shebang, all at once. Not clever.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:37 PM
Category: Learning by doing
December 07, 2004
"… the plucky young man who … has been largely responsible for revolutionising the student events scene in the UK …"

More on turning your hobby into your career, from last Saturday's Telegraph:


Six months into to his first year at Leeds University, Nick House ran out of money. He'd blown all his grant on partying, hanging out on the burgeoning Leeds club scene and throwing the odd party.


So, like any desperate but resourceful student, he went to see his bank manager to appeal for an extension on his loan. "I remember being handed a form," says House, with a wry smile. "It said something like 'reason for loan (tick box) books/education/training/computer equipment/other'."

House ticked "other" and added the explanatory couplet "nightclub promotion". Needless to say, he was refused a loan.

But the plucky young man, who during the past few years has been largely responsible for revolutionising the student events scene in the UK, wasn't to be deterred.

House looked at Leeds's lively network of 20-30 nightclubs – crammed at weekends, rattling the rest of the time – and dreamt of filling them with the hedonism-hungry student population. He hired a club and raised the cash for his own off-campus, exclusive NUS night called "In Your Dreams". Investing £1,000 of his own money, he printed flyers and hired a DJ. More than 400 Leeds students turned up and had a great time, but House lost a small fortune.

"I was too emotionally involved," he says. "I had fun, got a huge ego boost and gained lots of cred, but I lost money because I was a naive 18-year-old. I knew nothing about print costs, venue hire, distribution, DJs or profit and loss. They even charged me for the hire of the lighting rig, which is a joke."

House learnt from his mistakes. These days his student promotions outfit, Come Play, lures about 20,000 students into nightclubs across the country every week of the term.


And of course this story is also a reminder that as higher education gets to be a mass experience and not just an elite experience, that makes the student a major entrepreneurial target.

One thing puzzles me though. At the top of of the story it says that Nick House ran out of money. Yet later he manages to invest £1,000 of his own money. What gives? Or more exactly, who gave?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:18 PM
Category: Higher educationLearning by doing
September 23, 2004

The other night I had a virtual conversation (the mechanics of which I hope to blog more about Real Soon Now – but which for the moment I will ignore) with the Dissident Frogman, who is the man who designed - and more to the point engineered (so to speak) - this blog. I finally told him about the Comment Problem, and, fingers crossed, he has now fixed it.

The Comment Problem has been about number four or five on my list of Important Things To Do for as long as it has existed, and I apologise profusely to all those who have been hit by it, and in general for taking so long to deal with it. If deal with it I have. What happens is, you post a comment, with all the numbers, like you are supposed to, and instead of sticking it up, it comes back at you with some snarky irrelevance about how you have done it all wrong, and you say: well to hell with that no more comments from me at this damn place.

But, the other night, I told me he had found something wrong with the set-up of the Comment System. He didn't know how it had happened, but he had, he said, fixed it. Which sounds promising, I think you will agree.

Here's what I suggest. I will append a string of comments to this posting, with a view to seeing if anything goes wrong, and if you want to check out if things have been fixed, try posting comments here too. The more there are, from more people, the more grateful I will be. Then, if (IF) nothing untoward happens, I will declare the system working (touch wood and hope to die blah blah blah) and invite the resumption of comments of substance, on other postings.

Once again, my apologies for this craziness. I don't know who's or what's fault it was originally, but the delay in sorting it was definitely down to me. However, as I say, with luck, touch wood, it may now have been solved. As I also say, thanks in advance to any who join me in checking this out.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:55 PM
Category: Learning by doingThis blog
September 18, 2004
The invention of a new language

Further evidence of what children are capable of learning for themselves.

Literacy has to be taught, but the ability to use, and if necessary to invent, language is inborn. But, you have to do it young, or it doesn't work. Old people do not invent new languages.

Scientists have witnessed the birth of a new language, one invented by deaf children.

A study published today shows that a sign language that emerged over two decades ago now counts as a true language.

It began in a school for the deaf in Managua, Nicaragua, founded in 1977. With instruction only in lip-reading and speaking Spanish, neither very successful, and no exposure to adult signing, the children were left to their own devices.

Their first pantomime-like gestures evolved into a grammar of increasing complexity as new children learned the signs and elaborated. Now it has a formal name: Nicaraguan Sign Language, (NSL), and is so distinct that it would not be understood by American and British signers.

David Carr comments at Samizdata.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 AM
Category: LanguagesLearning by doing
September 07, 2004
Digby Anderson says children should spend less time at school and do real work instead

Not much time tonight, so your basic link, quote and: "interesting".

I didn't just forget about blogging during August; I also didn't read most blogs any more. I got right out of the blogosphere and into the normalsphere. So now I've been catching up with my favourites, and one of them now is the Social Affairs Unit blog. And there I found this rather good piece by Digby Anderson, saying that there's too much schooling these days. How true.


The precise numbers need to be spelt out. This institution, schooling, is now allowed and funded to monopolize young people's time for more than 4,000 days or 25,000 hours. Yet it takes a commercial organization only a dozen or so hours to teach someone to drive a car and a commercial language school will get you proficient in a foreign language in several weeks. The state's Little Pied Piper children leave after tens of thousands of hours in state schooling institutions inarticulate in their own language.

Set aside for the moment the arguments about just how little they learn in all those hours, weeks and years. What is never challenged is the assumption that school, or schools called universities, are the right places for children and youth. The assumption is that they should be there and nowhere else. The assumption is revealed in all its thoughtlessness in the literature of the anti-child labour lobby. Where should children not be? At work, of course. And why not? 'Why not, do you really want to push toddlers up chimneys again or have them rooting on rubbish tips or selling their bodies as they do in South America?' No, but then I don't want adults forced up chimneys either. Nor do I want them on rubbish tips or selling their bodies. That is nothing to do with children. It is about work no-one should have to do.

Once this nonsense is put aside, why should children not be at work? Because they will be exploited? Surely their parents would not let them be and nor would a regulatory government. So why not? It comes down to this. Children should not be at work because - wait for it - their proper place is at school. Where school is concerned all the worries of the anti-child labour lobby are thrown aside. They who are so worried about employers coercing and exploiting children don't care that schools have much more power to coerce and exploit children. They don't care that the schooling institutions can keep their charges working for no wage, in many cases, without any demonstrable educational benefit for years on end.

It doesn't require much imagination to think of jobs in comfy air conditioned offices - not rubbish tips - or in the fresh air and under adult supervision that teenagers could be allowed to do. But the politicians have no imagination. The schooling wheeze has been allowed to grow and grow with no evidence of success. It is time to cut it back. It is not justifying its awful custodial powers educationally and it should not be there merely to do state childminding. I am not sure at what age what is more or less compulsory schooling should cease, perhaps 11. However what there can be no doubt about is that the uncritical attitude to schooling institutions which regards them as the natural place for young people to be for 19 years should cease immediately.


I would start with lowering the school leaving age to thirteen, the beginning of teenagerness. But my longer term aim would be zero. (And by the way, I don't think votes at zero would be nearly such a bad idea as you probably do.) It was going to be only "interesting", but I just couldn't help myself, could I?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:05 PM
Category: Learning by doing
July 14, 2004
"You don't have to look in a book to find out …"

I have just been listening to this CD, bought for £2 in the Lower Marsh market. It's Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway revival 1999. For some reason the front cover of this CD wouldn't load properly here, so I've scrubbed it from here (where I originally tried to put it). It evidently didn't like my Gratuitous Picture policy.

Track number two features Bernadette Peters (long a favourite of mine – does this make me gay I wonder?) as Annie Oakley, plus supporting females, offering this reflection on the limits of education:

Folks are dumb where I come from,
They ain't had any learning.
Still they're happy as can be
Doin' what comes naturally (doin' what comes naturally).
Folks like us could never fuss
With schools and books and learning.
Still we've gone from A to Z,
Doin' what comes naturally (doin' what comes naturally)
You don't have to know how to read or write
When you're out with a feller in the pale moonlight.
You don't have to look in a book to find out
What he thinks of the moon and what is on his mind.
That comes naturally (that comes naturally).
My uncle out in Texas can't even write his name.
He signs his checks with "x's"
But they cash them just the same.
If you saw my pa and ma,
You'd know they had no learning,
Still they've raised a family
Doin' what comes naturally (doin' what comes naturally).
Cousin Jack has never read an almanac on drinking
Still he's always on the spree
Doin' what comes naturally (doin' what comes naturally).
Sister Sal who's musical has never had a lesson,
Still she's learned to sing off-key
Doin' what comes naturally (doin' what comes naturally).
You don't have to go a private school
Not to pick up a penny near a stubborn mule,
You don't have to have a professor's dome
Not to go for the honey when the bee's not home.
That comes naturally (that comes naturally).
My tiny baby brother, who's never read a book,
Knows one sex from the other,
All he had to do was look,
Grandpa Bill is on the hill
With someone he just married.
There he is at ninety-three,
Doin' what comes naturally (doin' what comes naturally).

Makes you kinda' wonder what Annie Oakley would have made of Sex Education, don't it?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:29 PM
Category: Learning by doing
July 08, 2004
The ultimate textbook price cut

Adriana (again – see below) emails me about this:


CNET reports that a professor rebuffed by Cisco decided to offer his own networking textbook free of charge. The solution, the tech news site says, highlights powerful new publishing techniques that promise to shake up the textbook industry, offering cheaper alternatives to cash-strapped students.

Bravo. And please keep the links coming, Adriana.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:17 AM
Category: Learning by doingThe internet
April 19, 2004
Load – fire – take aim

Deptoftrafficecameras.jpgI can stick up pictures here (and here), but do not have such privileges at White Rose. Probably just as well. So this picture – with its obvious civil liberties vibes – goes here, and then I go there and link back to it. It's from, but stuff there tends to disappear rapidly (or such is my fear), so I need to nail it down somewhere else.

The reason this is educational is that I am now feeling the need to learn more about how to do things like attach bubbles of text to people in pictures, to attach captions to pictures, and generally to manipulate graphics as the graphics here have been manipulated, all of which takes a bit of sussing out. I know that once I have learned such things, I will realise that they are all ridiculously easy. Everything to do with computers is ridiculously easy. The difficult bit is finding out which ridiculously easy things you need to learn.

So despite the ridiculous ease of it, and as with so many learning processes, I feel that for things like this I now need some personal face-to-face guidance not to say tuition. Relax, I'm not going to ask you people. I already know who to ring and who to ask.

I think the general pattern here is approximately as follows.

First, you acquire the desire to do something. And then – and this is the important bit – you start doing it. Not load – aim. Load – fire. You learn the abject minimum you need to get going. You then either get fed up and forget about it, or you master your abject minimum and start thinking: You know, I'd actually quite like to really know how to do this. Load – fire – take aim. Fire a few times. Then you see the point of aiming, and you decide you need to learn about it.

Take digital photography. Until digital cameras came along, I couldn't be doing with photography. I had a camera, but it was too much bother and I gave up. The fit with my life wasn't there, enough. Too much bother, too little pay-off. But now I have a digital camera and the fit is very good, what with blogging. So I got started, and learned the bare minimum to get regular results. But now, I am starting to think: Maybe I should really find out about this photography stuff. Maybe I should take a course, or something. And maybe I will at that. The point is, I now have a pile of questions which I know I would like to answer, about how lenses work, how to control light, and what the hell all the settings on my camera mean. Having done lots of firing, I am now in the right frame of mind – slightly informed, respectful of the experts because aware of some of the problems they can solve but which I can't – to start taking serious aim at this thing, and at the things I am photoing. At present, as I never tire of telling my readers and lookersat my Culture Blog, I just click away and pick the best ones. I pick from what I happen to have got. My aim would be to learn how to get what I want, which is a very different matter. In my opinion this is the key conceptual distinction between an amateur photographer and a pro.

But with graphic design I don't yet feel the need for any systematic or prolonged study, yet. What I need is the bare minimum to start getting results. For that, a little personal guidance is in order – a little teaching. But a great big course would be superfluous.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:37 PM
Category: Learning by doing
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
January 28, 2004
Christopher Columbus – learning the job by doing it and by reading in his spare time

I'm very fond of these short biographies that they do nowadays. If you can have short stories, why not short summaries of great lives? But for Brian's Education Blog purposes such books can be tantalisingly insufficient. That Lenin book I quoted from yesterday is a foot crusher if dropped, or it would have been when it first came out in hardback. Which is why it went into such fascinating detail about the nuances of the man's education. Christopher Columbus by Peter Rivière, on the other hand, one of the Pocket Biographies series done by Sutton Publishing, is only 111 pages long.

So this is all it says (in paragraph one of Chapter One, "The Early Years", on page 8) about the education of its hero:

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa in 'about 1451. His father, Domenico, was a weaver, and his mother, Susanna Fontanarossa, also came from a weaving family. We know of a sister, Bianchinetta, and two younger brothers, Bartolome and Diego, who were to be his companions and supporters throughout Us life. He received little in the way of formal education and the claim that he attended the University of Pavia, where he is meant to have studied geography, astronomy and geometry, is almost certainly not true. If later in life he was recognized for his knowledge of these subjects it was because he was self-taught. As a young bov he was engaged in his father's business, although at an earlv age he started going to sea. This was not altogether surprising since, along with Venice, Genoa was the great trading city of the Mediterranean.

And with that Columbus immediately sets to and discovers America, or whatever it was he actually did to it (see Introduction).

Still, for those who prefer short postings …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:59 PM
Category: Famous educationsLearning by doing
January 27, 2004
School of Rock

Talking, as I was in the previous posting, about charismatic teachers and their charming pupils in the movies, this looks like it could be fun. Yes folks, it's School of Rock of , starring Jack Black, who I thought was great in High Fidelity.

jackblac2.jpgHere's a synopsis:

Synopsis: Dewey Finn is a hell-raising guitarist with delusions of grandeur. Kicked out of his band and desperate for work, Dewey impersonates a substitute teacher and turns a class of fifth grade high-achievers into high-voltage rock and rollers. The private school's uptight and skeptical head, Principal Mullins, watches on as the 'new sub' preps the kids for Battle of the Bands.

It's nice that he's called Dewey – a little educational philosophy in-joke there.

Reviews seem to be mostly good and I will definitely see this at some point, although probably only when it comes out on DVD in Britain. Most of the reviews say that it is good old-fashioned frothy Hollywood comedy with its heart in the right place and saved from schmaltz by being well and winningly performed.

And when I do see School of Rock I will seek out the serious educational ideas that are sure to be contained in it, and report back to you all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:21 AM
Category: Learning by doing
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
December 24, 2003
The boy who wrote Eragon was homeschooled!

Not heard of "Eragon"? You are about to, it would seem. And because of Eragon, it looks like homeschooling is about to get another big boost.

Meet the Paolinis of Montana:

For years, Kenneth and Talita – former members of a survivalist cult led by a woman called Ma Prophet – seem to have lived on a shoestring, with only occasional employment. Kenneth, the son of an Italian immigrant, used to be a photographer, but doesn't appear to have had much work lately.

He and his wife have devoted their lives to their children, schooling them at home and, until recently, rarely venturing outside their small community of Paradise Valley, Montana.

And one of those children, Christopher, has written a book. And it's not just any book:

The British edition appears early next month, but already it is a huge bestseller in America, where it has surged past the Harry Potter books. Almost half a million copies were sold in only two months, a screenplay is in the works and at least a dozen foreign-language editions are on the way.

The book, Eragon of course, began life self-published. But then:

Their big break came when the popular crime novelist Carl Hiaasen visited the area on a fishing trip with his young son, and the boy became immersed in a copy of Eragon. On the way home, Hiaasen asked his son why he couldn't put the book down. "It's great, Dad," came the reply, "better than Harry Potter."

To a novelist who has had his fair share of bestsellers, those words were magic. Hiaasen alerted his editors in New York, and the next thing the Paolinis knew, the prestigious publisher Knopf (a part of Random House) was offering them a contract.

This is one of the more educationally startling bits of the Telegraph story:

"I was only 15 when I started Eragon. I didn't know how to write. I just told everything in one gigantic burst, then spent another year revising it. …"

Talk about learning by doing.

If Christopher Paolini turns out to be the perfectly nice, well adjusted, civilised person which I fully expect him to turn out to be, then that will ram the homeschooling point with particular force, because the popular fear is that whereas when maths professors do it, that's okay, maybe, when people called things like "Ma Prophet" get mixed up in it, only bad things can result. But now, it seems, the result is … Eragon.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:55 PM
Category: BooksHome educationLearning by doingLiteracy
August 19, 2003
When people ask Brian's Education Blog: "Brian's Education Blog, where can we get cut-your-own snowflakes on the Internet?", I tell them ...

I don't know if it's education, but it's fun. The site calls it snowflakes, but I think they mostly look more like paper table mats. This is a kind of internetted version of what people complain about children doing in primary schools instead of having the three Rs pounded into them.

Where would the world be without Professor Dave Barry?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:49 PM
Category: Learning by doingPrimary schoolsThe internet
August 02, 2003
Why Janet Daley is glad she worked her way through college

One of the better tree consuming enterprises in Britain is a thing called The Week, which is a summary of the output of the rest of the print media. This week's The Week came out today. There's some best articles page, which features some of the best chunks of commentary they can find, and this week's number two British chunk is this, from Janey Daley, in the Telegraph:

When I was a student at Berkeley, says Janet Daley, I spent my evenings in a San Francisco cinema ushering people to their seats. I was not alone. Working your way through college is what most American undergraduates do - even the rich ones. It's not just a way to pay for your studies; it's regarded as a social good in itself. To Americans, economic self-sufficiency is a virtue. Imagine my shock then, when I came to Britain for postgraduate work and was told that my college would be most unlikely to permit me to work. In Britain, I soon realised, having to take a job while at college is regarded as an affront: consider how shocked we were all meant to be this week at the news that one in five Oxford students now find it necessary to do so. Underlying this attitude is an ingrained haughtiness: you don't go to university in Britain just to be educated but to become a certain sort of person. And that person does not wait tables. Small wonder relations between the classes are so much more relaxed in America than they are here: in America, the man who brings you-coffee "may be a future professor of history".

Quite so. That point about how you never know who you might be insulting is one of my favourite arguments in favour of rampant capitalism, USA-style.

Certainly some of the best education I've had has been on the job, and the nastier the job was the more educational it tended to be. I once had a month and a half stuffing plastic bottles two at a time under a machine that spewed photographic chemicals. One mistake, and you spend the rest of the day with your genitals soaked in the stuff.

I never got it wrong, so I was spared the worst of it. Good hands, I guess. Not clumsy. All that keeping wicket at school.

But imagine doing something like that for your whole working life. I had plenty of imagining to do when I was doing it, and that was definitely one of the things I imagined. (Not necessarily ghastly, was my conclusion, if you were really good at it and not good for anything more complicated or difficult.) Maybe I was only pretending to be a worker type worker during the vacation, but the experience surely made me a better person, and a better educated person. A different "certain sort of person", you might say.

Here's the whole piece.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:07 PM
Category: Economics of educationLearning by doing
July 23, 2003
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, 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
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
May 28, 2003
Learning by learning and learning by doing

As I have already made clear in my last two postings, the kind of education I am preoccupied with at the moment is my own, in the arcane art of blog "management". I have just spent the afternoon copying everything associated with this blog into my not-for-public-consumption fake blog where I can try out all the little tweaks and polishings that will eventually occur here. Later I can make this fake blog the basis of my Culture Blog. I of course live in terror of having done damage to this real blog, and if I have, grovelling apologies. In theory I was only copying from this. But in such an exercise one is only one click from catastrophe, or so it seems.

The good news is that I can feel my knowledge of this stuff starting seriously to grow.

When it comes to matters computerised, I don't have the willpower to learn things by sitting down and learning them, as if for an exam. Not unless I actually am taking an exam, and so far I have managed to avoid any computer skills exams. From time to time I do sit down and try to "learn" a programme, in an abstract, useless sort of way, with a view later to being able to do things with it, but this never works. The only way I actually learn is by doing a real job with the programme, but very slowly and with lots of mistakes and backtrackings.

I think I know why, and it has to do with the absurdly huge number of things that computers are able to do. Because of this, you want to be sure that the tiny trickle of things you do learn are things that you are actually going to be able to use. If you merely try to "learn a programme", you risk wasting huge amounts of time learning how to do several dozen completely useless things. But if you are hacking your way through a computer task which you actually want done, there is a definite chance that what you end up learning will also end up being stuff you actually wanted to learn.

One other point. When you learn in this learning-by-doing way, you seldom do things from scratch. Usually what you are doing is modifying something, rather than creating it from nothing. That way, by contemplating what you are mucking about with and by watching what it does, and then what it does when you change it, you learn how you might one day create one of these things all by yourself, from nothing.

At the risk of changing the subject too radically for comfort, I recall reading an article – in the BBC Music Magazine I think it was – about the contrast between two kinds of musician, the classicals and the popsters. The classicals learned their art by mastering abstract but at first musically empty skills, and then gradually assembling what they had learned into real music-making. The popsters, on the other hand, started out by simply copying their heroes, and just as soon as they could thrash their way through a real piece of music, even if they were only faking it, then by golly they did. The gist of the piece was that the classicals were mostly a joyless bunch of time-servers, while the popsters actually got to enjoy their lives. The classicals ended up "knowing more", but the popsters hung on to their love of music. (Although I'm sure the money difference made a difference too.)

There are many morals in among the above, but I'll leave you people to tease them out for yourselves. I'm back to my blog-managing.

Which I am enjoying very much.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:33 PM
Category: Learning by doing