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Chronological Archive • December 08, 2002 - December 14, 2002
December 14, 2002
The Sheila who couldn't cope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a Merry Christmas to you all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's what I think about this potential row.

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

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


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

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

Hello Brian,


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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for all your help


Think nothing of it my dear chap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:20 PM
Category: Technology
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