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Chronological Archive • January 12, 2003 - January 18, 2003
January 17, 2003
How I would teach music

The latest issue of the BBC Music Magazine (February 2003 - strictly paper so no point in a link) has the usual kind of brand X BBC article about "music education". If your child is keen on the cello, here's how to encourage them. Don't push them too hard if it's you and not them that's ambitious. Watch out for when they hit the Yehudi Menuhin school and get discouraged by the other better infant prodigies. These are the good choir schools and here's how they work. Here's how much they cost. That kind of thing.

You get no sense from reading this article that the classical way of making music is in any sort of crisis, although the evidence of this crisis is abundant throughout every issue of this magazine, and throughout the rest of this issue. If this were a piece for my Culture Blog, I might perhaps go into elaborate detail. Suffice it to say here that in the classical music business, an ever increasing flood of expert young musicians are chasing an ever diminishing pool of jobs. Major orchestras thrash about in a state of permanent financial crisis. Star soloists and conductors lose their permanent recording contracts. And government arts bureaucrats ask with increasing urgency what the point of it all is now supposed to be? But never mind, my little Susan is going to be the next Jacqueline du Pre.

In order to be a capable educator, it seems to me, you do have to have some idea of where the world outside and beyond your little academy is probably moving, and "classical music" needs a torrent of average classical instrumentalists like it needs a hole in the head. If the children you are teaching are just in it for the fun of it, and to stir up their brain cells (which classical music making is famously good at doing, by the way) before they all go off and become systems engineers, fine. But if the idea is that this music teaching might lead to some kind of musical career, then a major change of attitude is in order.

If the universe decided to play an evil joke on the rest of itself and to make me into a music teacher, the instruments I'd focus on most obsessively would be not the violin or the cello or the oboe, but the tape recorder and the personal computer. I would encourage my charges to make recordings as soon as they could manage them, and the questions I'd then ask would not be: Do I Like It? – or: Would Mozart have liked it? No. I'd ask: Do You Like It? Is this the kind of stuff that you and your friends might enjoy listening to?

The world of professional music making has all the recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto it can now use. New ones are sometimes interesting, but they won't pay the rent. But what music, all music, still has is a voracious appetite for new stuff, expressing new impulses and feelings, for new audiences. There is the territory where livings can be made.

The Next Big Thing for classical music making is for all that instrumental skill to be applied to the making of new kinds of music.

When classical musicians talk like this, the phrase "cross over" is often used, and the results are usually dire in the extreme. But there is a reason for this. You can't imbibe one style of music making throughout your childhood, and then switch at the age of thirty seven to making stuff that will storm the album charts and actually earn you a living. This is the equivalent of trying to write a popular novel in a foreign language.

The language parallel is actually very apt. I recall reading in one of Steven Pinker's books about the difference between children brought up in a multilingual culture, and adults trying to make sense of such a world. The adults can only ever "translate" in a very self-conscious and laborious way. For them, the new multi-lingual world will always be that: multi-lingual. But mix up several languages in a group of children and leave them to get on with it, and you'll get a genuine new language, a "creole" language as I believe these things are called. If classical music is ever going to get beyond Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., it is going to have to teach the next generations very differently to the way Yehudi Menuhin and Jacqueline du Pre were taught.

Don't get me wrong. I love classical music with maniacal adoration. My classical CD collection is the talk of libertarian London. But the job of making this wonderful music available to the musical public has now, give or take a few more rarities and oddities, been done. The teaching of music should now reflect that fact.

My guess is that in lots of places it already does.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:47 PM
Category: Technology
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January 16, 2003
What does home education have to do with libertarianism?

A further posting from Julius Blumfeld:

I've been wondering why Brian asked me to contribute towards this Blog. It's true that I am a libertarian. It's also true that I am a parent of home educated children. But they are not home educated because I am a libertarian and I didn't become a libertarian because they are home educated. Nor are most home educators in the U.K. particularly libertarian. If anything, they tend more towards the green end of the spectrum. Yet Brian presumably thinks that home education has some significance for libertarians. Does it?

At the moment, I think I would have to say "not really". But if you were to ask me again in ten years, I think my answer might be very different. Here's why.

Home education in England and Wales (and to a lesser extent, Scotland) is probably easier than almost anywhere else in the Western World. By "easier" I don't mean that British children are genetically predisposed to learning at home. I mean that the State puts very few obstacles in the way of British home educators. Here, if you want to home educate your children, you just do it. There are no forms to fill out. You don't need to get permission from anybody. You may get the occasional visit from the Local Education Authority, but that's rarely a problem. You don't need to have any certificates or qualifications. You don't need to follow any particular curriculum (or any curriculum at all). If your children have never been to school then you don't even have to tell the authorities you're doing it.

But I predict all that will change. At the moment, home education in the U.K. is off the Government's radar. It's just a quirky thing for a small minority. It's nothing to worry about and it's not worth bothering with.

Yet as more parents home educate their children, it will become increasingly visible. And as that happens, the pressure will grow for the State to "do something" about "the problem" of home education. The pressure will come from the teaching unions (whose monopoly it threatens). It will come from the Department of Education (always on the lookout for a new "initiative"). It will come from the Press (all it will take is one scare story about a home educated ten year old who hasn't yet learned to read). And it will come from Brussels (home education is illegal in many European countries so why should it be legal here?).

That's the point at which home education will become a major libertarian issue in the U.K. So Brian is right (as usual). He's just ahead of the curve.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:34 PM
Category: Home education
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The facts of global citizenry

Michael Jennings quotes from this Telegraph story:

Eighty-six per cent said it was now more important to teach about environmental issues while 80 per cent agreed that "geography should teach pupils to respect and reconnect with nature". Many teachers went further. Two thirds thought that teaching about "sustainable lifestyles" and the pupils' roles as "global citizens" was more important than teaching basic skills such as reading maps.

I've posted the most pungent thing Jennings has to say about the notion of "sustainable development" over at Samizdata, as the slogan of the day. As for map-reading, he responds with, in part, this:

… if we want our children to grow up to be good world citizens, there are few better things to give them than good geography lessons. Give people maps to look at and study, and the names of countries and their capitals and other cities to memorise, and explain why cities have grown where they are, and what languages are spoken, and how all these facts interrelate with each other, and children will slowly get a sense that the world and human culture is bigger and more complex and more extraordinary than can be understood from a few years of life in one town or country. Look at a few maps, and start asking questions, and suddenly the whole world jumps out at you. In short, a very traditional way of studying geography is a very good aid for people in figuring out their own values and attitudes.

Agreed. How can you think globally if you don't know what the globe actually consists of?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:21 PM
Category: The curriculum
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January 15, 2003
Muslim home-schooling is definitely a good thing

A while ago I did a posting saying that I was in favour of Muslims having the right to home-school, on the grounds that Muslim families are less likely to be Islamofascists than Muslim schools. My thanks to Daryl Cobranchi for the link to this story, which makes me a lot surer now that I was right than I was when I first said it:

The Saleem family is part of a small but growing number of American Muslims opting to teach their children at home. As do home schoolers of other faiths, Ms. Saleem says teaching her children herself ensures they absorb a strong religious identity.

But since Sept. 11, she says, a newer set of fears is pushing Muslim parents toward home-schooling: Concerns about their children's safety in public schools and, on the flip side, the possibility that they'll be exposed to extremist views in private Islamic schools.

"I'm scared for my children," she says. "Any of our children can get caught in someone's rhetoric."

It's not just that these good people are in my opinion less likely to be Islamofascists than the people running Muslim schools. That is their opinion also. And that is a huge part of why they are doing home-schooling.

I should have realised this at once, but at least I have now. Meanwhile the presumption of liberty did me proud, and I said the right thing anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:45 AM
Category: Home education
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"But what about socialization?"

It was never my intention that all the writing on this blog would be done by me - Brian Micklethwait. From the start I hoped that others who were ideologically sympatico would in due course be persuaded to join in, and liven things up samizdata-style. So it is with extreme pleasure that I introduce the first of what I hope will be many contributions to this blog by Julius Blumfeld. Like me, Julius lives and works in London. Unlike me he is a parent and a home-educator. Enjoy.

These last few weeks, we've been 'coming out', which means answering the question that all home-educating families come to dread:

"But what will you do about socialization?"

Roughly translated, this means:

"You're mad. If they don't go to school then they will turn into sad misfits."

Yet we can hardly blame people for asking. We thought much the same when we started out. We planned in minute detail how we would compensate for the lack of school socialization. They would go to choir. They would join the local drama group. They would go to dance classes. They would meet with friends every weekend. If we worked at it hard enough, then hopefully they would become socialized just like school

Well of course it didn't work out like that. They don't go to an endless stream of clubs and groups. They do meet with the occasional friend at the weekend. But that's only for a few hours and it's not even every weekend.

Yet the funny thing is that they seem to be turning out pretty normally, in spite of the dismal failure of our Five Year Socialization Plan.

It turns out that we were wrong. Socialization is not something that has to be worked at. It's not like learning a second language. It's more like learning your first one. All a child seems to need is contact with other people. It doesn't seem to matter much who those people are. They don't even have to be other children. Now we tell people that you'd have to keep a child locked in a room for ten years for it not to become 'socialized'. At least that's our story and we're sticking to it.

Julius Blumfeld

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 AM
Category: Home educationSocialisation
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January 14, 2003

I admire Michael Peach's blog, and my admiration was hardly diminished at all by the mistake he had at the top of it until Diane Patterson pointed it out. I noticed it too, but I was already starting to wonder whether "it's" as the possessive pronoun of "it" is a mistake, or perhaps something a bit more interesting than that.

Point one. Michael isn't the only person who perpetrates this mistake, or maybe "new usage". You see it all over the place. It's everywhere. (Ha ha.) And it's – it is – indeed sensible to make a distinction between "belonging to it" and "it is".

But if "Brian's Education Blog" has an apostrophe after Brian, why shouldn't "libertarian unschooling at it's best" be spelt that way as well, with an apostrophe after "it"?

What, in such circumstances, does it mean to say that "its" is correct, and "it's" (for belonging to it) is incorrect. Words mean what people say they mean.

The turning point would really come if some people started using "it's" in this way, on purpose, on the grounds that to them it makes more sense. But even if that doesn't happen, a collective failure to do things the "correct" way could be enough to result in a genuine change.

Take the rule that all written "sentences" (clutches of words between this full stop and the next one) have to have verbs in them. Nonsense. Not true. Stupid. Verbless sentences? Fine. No worries. Not a problem. It used to be that although you wouldn't be sent to prison for talking like that, you couldn't write like that. You just could not. Not done. Not the thing. But now, because of writers like me who say that this "rule" is dumb, the rule simply does not apply any more.

Or what about the (to me) utterly vile habit of just not using upper case letters even at the beginning of each sentence. I hate this. (I even originally wrote this paragraph in this all lower case manner, but then I hated it so much I changed it to regular again. Interestingly, Word For Windows agrees with me!) But if enough people decide they are going to do it, who else can stop them?

I'm starting to wonder if there might perhaps be something about our culture now which makes standardised spelling and standardised grammar more difficult to sustain and defend. I suspect that the printing press had a lot to do with the establishment of standard spellings and grammatical rules in the first place, and I further suspect that the gradual erosion of the printing press as the dominant literary machine, so to speak, by … well , by this stuff, is making standard spellings and grammatical rules gradually harder to sustain.

All of which makes teaching that much more interesting.

There. I think that counts as a decent day's EdBlogging.

("EdBlogging"?!?! … Just what kind of a neologism from hell is that? Have you no standards man? Are you some sort of damned barbarian? …)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Grammar
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Another target crumbles towards absurdity (and mine starts to look a bit shaky as well)

Well I finished that other homework that I was working on. But once again I am rushing my duties here more than somewhat. But it didn't take me long to find a juicy quote, seconds into the Guardian education page, on the constant theme here of Sovietisation.

The government's targets for extra university places must not be met by increasing the numbers on "mickey mouse" courses, the higher education minister, Margaret Hodge, warned yesterday.

There they go again. They set up a "target", and right away the thing ceases to be a sane measurement of anything sane. Here's how many courses we want! Oh, but did we mention that we want them to be sensible courses, not silly ones?

Okay that fulfils my daily target of one posting however mickey mouse every weekday.

Now let me see if I can't do another one, and exceed my quota!!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:12 PM
Category: Sovietisation
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January 13, 2003
On the economics of schools and of getting to school

There is an interesting story in the latest TES (that link is to the publication website but not to the piece itself), under the headline "Congestion fee forces teachers to quit jobs" (TES Jan 10 2003 page 12):

Teachers facing congestion charges which start in London next month are quitting their jobs, while parents are planning to move children from city centre schools.

Well, that was the idea.

In general, I suspect that one of the reasons why homeschooling may be growing in popularity in Britain is that our transport system is becoming ever more shambolic and clogged up. Complaints about "congestion charging" seem to me to blame the messenger (the price system) for the message: "Travel costs more these days."

This topic was briefly mentioned in the discussion that followed my talk last Friday, but the general notion that homeschooling is an economic as well as just an educational phenomenon (which I had hoped to talk about) didn't really get much of a mention. But it surely isn't just that the schools themselves that are a problem; there is also the increasingly fraught battle to get the kids to school every day.

Yet it makes perfect sense. I regard modern mass education as an economically ridiculous arrangement, never mind how nasty and mind-dumbing it is. Why on earth do schools have to be so big, and as a direct result, so far away from most of their "customers"? Why can't children, especially younger ones, just gather in someone's front room to learn things?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:51 PM
Category: Home education
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Welcome to Rational Parenting

I've spent today wrestling with another article for another blog, which I still haven't finished. However, I am aware of my BEdBlog duties, so here's my posting for today.

Which says: Welcome to Rational Parenting, the new specialist blog being run and mostly written (so far) by Alice Bachini. There's been lots of stuff there since it got started just over a week ago, more than enough to convince me that it will be sticking around and have new things to say most days.

My favourite bits so far have concerned an interesting parental duty, namely the duty to be happy:

Having grown up surrounded by the powerful bad meme that money-earning work is a total pain that just gets in the way of real life, I think that giving your children a definition of work as an inconvenient endurance test is very wrong and very destructive indeed. It's easy to do, all it takes is to arrive home exhausted, only ever say negative things about your job, never show signs of joy at getting up and going out of the house in the morning, and most of all, never do anything to remedy this appalling state of affairs if you can possibly help it (due to being too fed up and tired from the job). This way you can make your children think the following:
a) adult life is horrible,
b) having a family destroys your freedom, permanently,
c) the point of life is weekends and a comfortable retirement.

I think that's rather profound.

In a comment on this, Alice has already said that Rational Parenting is getting a very healthy hit rate. I'm sure this will climb a lot higher as the word gets around. I expect to learn a lot from it, and regularly to be commenting on and reacting to its contents.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:16 PM
Category: Parents and children
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January 12, 2003
"Why is the sky dark at night?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:40 PM
Category: Brian's education
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