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Chronological Archive • January 19, 2003 - January 25, 2003
January 24, 2003
Brian needing some education

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:44 PM
Category: Brian's educationTechnology
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Home-educating and Guardian-reading

I haven't seen any reference on any home-education friendly blogs to this story (School's out for ever – September 11 2002) and now earlier this week this story (Home truths – January 22 2003) for the Guardian by home-educator Alice Douglas. This may be because I am several links short of a blog when it comes to keeping up with absolutely everything of relevance to my blog. I mean, a day or two ago the TV news people were saying that what the government was saying about education that day – something to do with reducing the size of the National Curriculum (I think it should be reduced to no National Curriculum at all) – was its most important education policy announcement since the death of the dinosaurs. Did I refer to any of that here? I don't recall doing so.

So, in case you missed these Alice Douglas pieces, well, now's your chance to correct that. Unlike a government policy announcement they tell a particular story accurately (presumably). Ms Douglas certainly has some big ideas about education and what it ought to consist of, but unlike the government, she's not trying to force them on anyone else. She's just doing the best she can for her own two kids.

Who's names, by the way, are Tybalt and Hero. Tybalt is a character in Romeo and Juliet and Hero is a lady character in Much Ado About Nothing, and the theatricality of these names is presumably because of Ms Douglas herself being an actress. I wonder what the folks at Rational Parenting think about children being given somewhat eccentric names like these. The two vets in All Creatures Great and Small, Siegfried and Tristan, also spring to mind in this connection. Personally I'm for this kind of thing. It certainly makes doing a personal search on the internet for all references to yourself a lot easier if you are called Tybalt, rather than John or Phil or Simon, followed by something equally mundane. (I love that I'm the only Brian Micklethwait on this planet that I know of. No need for me to be called Mercutio.) And check out the Dad, by the way. He sounds like quite a character.

I like what Ms. Douglas says about the first few years of regular education that most people in Britain endure:

In this country, we start school younger than almost anywhere in the world. Legally, we don't have to enrol our children until they are five, but in order to secure a place it is often necessary to attend from the age of three. Within three months, though, children who begin at five have not only caught up, but even overtaken early starters. In many northern European countries, education doesn't start until seven. When Hero reaches that age, if she is keen to try school or I feel that I am not meeting her needs, we might think again.

That was last September. Now it's colder:

Those long, lazy summer days when the zip wire, trampoline and climbing frame were in full use as friends and their children converged at our place are just a distant memory. Freedom vanished as work and school took over and Hero's friends evaporated into classrooms while we questioned whether reading in bed with tea and toast until way too late counted as schooling. Suddenly, we were on our own.

At the end of her piece there's a hint of the Conservatives one day adding their little pennyworth of misery to this whole story, in the form of "government help" for home-educators.

I also wonder how we will afford it all. At the Conservative party conference, the shadow education secretary Damian Green gave one of those opposition pledges to fund alternative methods of educating children. His terminology was typically evasive but seemed to suggest that they would be willing to pay parents wishing to home-educate, which is the norm in many other countries. But such a measure hardly seems likely in the near future.

I'm sure I hope not. Once they start paying you, then repeat after me what part of the male anatomy they have you by. Does anyone know where these other countries are where paying parents to home-educate is the norm?

Oh well. The important thing here is that the Guardian is a great British national institution, and home-education, home-schooling and all that is slowly but surely becoming a thing that all Guardian readers have heard of, and which many of them will, in future years, consider. It reminds me of natural childbirth. First it was a few freaks, then a few more freaks, now it's a standard parenting option.

But that stuff about government help gives you a clue about what the government may end up doing about all this. Maybe it will always be allowed, but it will only be allowed if it is done the way the Guardian and its readers say that it must be done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:11 PM
Category: Home education
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Prizes for all - private-school style

Article by Alice Thomson in the Telegraph. Claims (I have no way of knowing whether it is true or not) that private schools in the UK will, when confronted with non-academic pupils, seek to find things that they can excel at. She contrasts this with the state approach in the same situation which is to prevent anyone from succeeding.

Also includes the claim that state education (on a per child basis) is now only fractionally less expensive than the private sector. Again, I have no way of knowing whether it is true or not but it is pretty devastating stuff if it is.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 05:00 AM
Category: Economics of education The private sector
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January 23, 2003
Theory X versus Theory Y – a dose of reality

Friedrich Bowhard put up an outstandingly interesting piece yesterday, about a second-career maths teacher trying to make sense of the mismatch between what they teach teachers to do, and what teachers do do.

It's a classic illustration of the folly of trying to apply Theory Y thinking (see the post immediately below this one, here) to an institution that is still run on Theory X lines. The pupils have to attend, and have to be in class whether they want to be there or not, and must be badgered into learning whether they want to learn what they're being taught or not. At least in a factory that aspires to become Theory Y people are being paid to be there, and agree to be there even if they don't always like it much. But this school is for many of its inmates only a very thinly disguised prison. Theory Y can't work in a place run that way.

Friedrich's teacher is especially good on the nuances of desk arrangement, and of the "discovery" method as applied to the learning of maths. (I intend to say a lot more about that, you may depend upon it.)

As is always the case with such mismatches between the philosophy being aspired to and organisational reality, the only time when things work properly is outside the official timetable periods. The teacher has to do things in a Theory X way during classes if all hell is not to break loose, but he also runs an unofficial lunch-hour period (attendance strictly voluntary) where a Theory Y atmosphere really starts to take hold.

This reminded me of a story told by Waterman (again see below) about a starting-out young factory manager who came to realise that the only time the factory he had been put in charge of worked properly was at the weekend. Why? Because at the weekend, he didn't "manage" it (in a Theory X way). It managed itself (in a Theory Y way). And of course it managed much better.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:08 PM
Category: Compulsion
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January 22, 2003
Theory X – Theory Y

One of the great managerial fashions of the eighties was the book In Search of Excellence, which was about how to get companies to do well and make lots of money, by doing a bit more than just make money. The "senior" author was Tom Peters, whom it is now as unfashionable to admire as it was once fashionable. I still quite admire the man, and believe that his triviality as a thinker and writer about management is now exaggerated. But I have also enjoyed reading stuff by the "other" writer of In Search of Excellence, Robert H. Waterman Jnr., who is a more calm and down-to-earth sort of a character, and who is now growing old rather more gracefully. So when I saw a later book by him in my local Oxfam shop on sale at £3 I gave it a go. And indeed, it is quite good.

One of the core concepts of books like these (this one is called The Frontiers of Excellence – well, it had to be called something) is the contrast between Theory X management and Theory Y management. Waterman recycles this concept yet again, and this is the version of it that he offers:

This is Theory X:

Most of us have an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if at all possible.

We need to be directed, want to avoid responsibility, have relatively little ambition, and want security above all.

We need, therefore, to be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment if we're to put forward adequate effort.

And this is Theory Y:

Putting forth physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.

Most humans don't inherently dislike work, though they are often placed in jobs that give them plenty of cause for unhappiness.

External control and threat of punishment are not the only means of getting us to work.

Commitment to objectives is directly related to the rewards attached to achieving those objectives; the most important reward: satisfaction of our own ego needs.

Under favourable conditions most of us learn not only to accept, but to seek, responsibility.

The capacity to enact a fairly high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

All of this was first spelt out to the big wide world by Douglas McGregor in his book The Human Side of Enterprise in 1960, and notions like these had been doing the rounds in management theory circles since at least World War 2, not least as a result of the productivity miracles that had been lucked into by America during that same war. The men who would normally have been bossing them around being absent fighting the war, American simply had to trust the most unpromising looking and most second class of their citizens (such as women and negroes) to get the industrial job done, and – surprise, surprise – they did it.

Do I have to spell out how this Theory X/Theory Y contrast applies to education, and to our assumptions about the nature of childhood motivations? Surely not.

That's it, that's this posting, pretty much finished. But I'll just add one big point in a very few more words. It's one thing to accept the truth of Theory Y; quite another to apply it successfully, and without creating new and improved versions of Theory X torments for your underlings. And it is especially difficult to apply it in circumstances where Theory X has been ruling the roost without apology for the previous few decades, as Robert Waterman makes very clear. Which might explain why many and probably most schools nowadays are no nearer to doing Theory Y than they were half a century ago. Nevertheless, as a statement of the sort of world that a lot us now want for children, for the way they work and the way they learn, it still does very nicely, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:33 AM
Category: Compulsion
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January 21, 2003
Why no private schools for the poor of Britain?

More from Julius Blumfeld

In this week’s Spectator, James Tooley writes of the remarkable success of private education in Africa and India. And he’s not talking about schooling for the elite. These are schools for people who, by our standards, are very poor indeed. The figures are remarkable. Apparently 45% of Ghanaian children go to private school and in Hyderabad the figure is 61 per cent. According to Tooley, this is happening in many parts of Africa and India – all in response to the abject failure of the State education system in those parts of the world.

Why, then, has nothing of the sort emerged here? After all, our State education system is also a shambles and British parents presumably value education no less than parents in Africa or India.

A political culture in which fee-paying schools are regarded as morally reprehensible doesn’t help. No doubt there are also many to whom it would simply not occur to pay for something the Government gives them for nothing. But even allowing for that, my guess is that there are still plenty of people who would willingly stump up a few quid a week to get a half-way decent education for their kids.

The real problem is cost. It‘s just too expensive for most people to send their children to private schools. But why is it so expensive? Teachers are not highly paid and you don’t need much space to start a small school. A church hall ought to do. Or even just a large room in a house. So where are all the small, cheap private schools á la Ghana or Hyderabad?

The problem, I suspect, is that the private school business is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country. As a result, opening a new private school is rarely economic at any price that would make it affordable to the majority of people. And this doesn’t just apply to would-be competitors to Eton. The 2002 Education Act decrees that that an independent school is one with five or more pupils. So if you want to start a little private school with five children, the State piles on a mountain of regulations and if you don’t comply with them, you’ll be shut down or locked up.

So there it is. The State takes over education, makes a complete dog’s breakfast of it and then makes it impossible for anybody else to compete. There’s no law that actually says “small cheap private schools are hereby banned”. But there might as well be.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 AM
Category: Free market reforms
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January 20, 2003
How the internet solves the text book problem

A preoccupation of this blog is the influence on education of technology in general, and computers, the internet etc., in particular. People with preoccupations like this (such as me), are constantly to be heard saying that the effect of computers, the internet etc., is to make it possible for education to be individualised rather than massified, free range instead of factory. And computers, the internet etc., do indeed make that easier to contrive.

However, I had a conversation with my friend Sean Gabb this evening (Sean is among other things, a teacher of politics and economics at college level) which put a slightly different slant on this familiar story.

When I was a student, one of the most annoying facts of student life was that at the very moment when I wanted a particular book from the university library, I couldn't get it because there were also a couple of dozen other students all queueing up to read the same book. Eventually I got my turn, or else bought a copy of the book if it was important and not too expensive. But it was all most inconvenient.

Contrast this muddle with the situation of Sean's students. Sean no longer recommends books to his students; he recommends instead material that is available on the internet. Setting aside the question of whether this change presages the Collapse of Western Civilisation As We Know It, this procedure does have one huge advantage. All the students in the class, provided only that they have access to the internet (which they all do one way or another), are able to access this material without treading on each other's toes or in any way inconveniencing one another. There is no queue to read the relevant stuff. They just read it, exactly when they want to.

One inefficiency of Normal Education is that the classes are so very, very big, with the inefficiency of all the students in them being expected to proceed at the same pace. This they might not want to do. Electronic technology creates a personal library for each student that each can learn from at his own pace.

But another inefficiency of Normal Education is that sometimes the classes are so very, very small compared to how big they might be, if it were only possible for many hundreds – even (by using a bit more technology) thousands or millions – of students all to be consulting the same texts at the same time, in response to their teacher's recommendations. There are surely some teachers who are so excellent at teaching that thousands would want to learn from them, and would be quite willing to proceed at whatever pace such a teacher chose to set.

Maybe a future generation will decide that "the age of mass production" is the phrase we now use to describe that part of the real age of mass production when production costs were still actually quite high. Now the cost of mass producing texts, at any rate, is plunging towards zero. Good teachers can now, with the aid of the latest technology, achieve economies of scale undreamed of in the past.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
Category: Technology
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January 19, 2003
Home-Ed on Samizdata

I like to think that there may be some people who come here regularly, but not to Samizdata. If so, these few especially might like to know that I've just done a posting on Samizdata about home-education, which refers to the Julius Blumfeld posting here, to Michael Peach's posting yesterday, and to Daryl Cobranchi's fierce response to Blumfeld. Here are the guidelines which are the current focus of the argument.

Already, as I write this now, there has been a comment on the samizdata posting, which refers to this, well I was going to say home-education story, but actually it's more like an on-the-road-education story. I hope there'll be more titbits like this. The Samizdata hit rate is currently running at well over a thousand per day, and although I don't want to abuse my position as a Samizdata contributor, I regularly feed interesting stuff from here to there.

And this debate is very interesting - but, sadly, in the Chinese sense.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:16 PM
Category: Home education
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