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Chronological Archive • February 09, 2003 - February 15, 2003
February 14, 2003
Baaadmouthin' your professor

As you may know, I don't like to go on about the USA all the time here. I prefer to dig out local stories.

Do you live in London? Are you doing any teaching? Of any kind? (Children? Animals? Burglars? Accountants? Mass murderers? Old time dancers?) And are you proud of what you're doing? Invite me to sit in. If I share your high opinion of yourself and your teaching you'll get a plug here. If not, I'll keep it polite and find some nice things to say.

But this story, from the USA is too good to miss. And be sure to look at the stuff on myprofessorsucks.com that Professor Mary Ann Swissler was responding to. Sample complaint from a student (but follow the link and read them all – they're glorious):

The class is called Promotional Writing, and let me start by saying that there is more sleeping going on in this class than writing. No homework. No tests. The occassional press release or ad is due. The teacher makes me sick to look at, and her handwriting is worse than my lil bros (age 9). Her grey roots are gagging, and her outfits are blinding to the eye. Yes the class is easy, and thank god for the easy A, but there has to be some education that comes from class...I do pay $1500 for this damn class. Thank you Seton Hall for giving nothing but the best! Swissler is the #1 reason not to come, and the #1 reason to leave. Oh yeah--why do we have a teacher that doesn't know how to spell lead? She spells it LEDE?! wtf!! Pure crap...and I leave you with this thought--she is wearing my clothes I donated to the salvation army! (its sad-really.)

And this was Professor Swissler's magisterial reply:

All I can say is that the comments confirmed to me what I had to keep to myself all semester: that most of you mental midgets are the most immature, sheltered, homophobic, sexist, racist, lying sacks of s—t I have ever met in my life. ... Seton Hall may be kissing you're a—es now, but out here in the real world, brats like you will be eaten for breakfast.

I love that. I really do. God Bless America! It's a sublime cross between political correctness gone (and for once the phrase is not just a phrase) mad, and the Sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman: "Don't you eyeball me boy!", "… listenin' to that punk rock music and baaadmouthin' your country! …", etc.

Consumer sovereignty comes slap up against producer sovereignty. Teach how you want, and take the consequences in student abuse. Say what you want about your teacher, and hear what she has to say right back at you.

These "promotional writing" students didn't learn much about sending out press releases, or about spelling it would seem, from Professor S. But they can all write quite well. I started reading their abuse, and was gripped to the end. I think she taught them more than they realise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 PM
Category: Liberal education
[5] [1]
February 13, 2003
Maths – even more applicable than applied maths

Just in case you don't regularly read Rational Parenting (a mistake on your part, I think, but let that pass), do go there today for an interesting piece by Alice about the maths bit of Britain's current National Curriculum. This key paragraph comes right at the end:

P.S. I've just worked out what this complicatedness is all about: the maths syllabus is apeing real life. It's trying to make itself relevant, by being applied-maths instead of just simple maths-maths. This is nuts. The whole reason maths matters at all is that you can and do apply it; the real-life situations are the applying part. Sigh.

By all means teach maths by referring to particular applications of it in real life – points totals in the Premier League, lengths of bits of wallpaper, areas of wall to determine how much paint you need, speeds of trains to determine times of journeys, etc. etc. By all means, illustrate all those universal statements. But maths itself is of such universal applicability that to embed such illustrative embellishment in the very structure of what must be learned is to limit its universality, and to miss the point of the thing completely.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:34 PM
Category: Maths
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The Omnicompetent Group delusion

The Political World seems to indulge in a regular pattern of focussing in on a particular category of people who between them will Sort Out The Mess in whatever situation is now a mess, Get A Grip, Take A Lead, until such time as this group of people are likewise revealed as being only human and just as incapable of doing the impossible as any other group of people.

But instead of recognising that no one is omnipotent or omniscient, and accepting the necessity of a free society in which no one is even pretending to be omnipotent or omniscient – because that would be too humiliating, and would involve admitting that too many disreputable people had been right all along and too many respectable people had been wrong all along – the answer to each crisis of failed omnicompetence is "solved" simply by appointing another category of persons who this time, this time, will work the miracle. These people, unlike all previous clay-footed gods, are so wondrously clever that if we give them unlimited powers, all will be well.

The most common manifestations of this delusion are the occasional outbursts of euphoria, such as gripped Political Britain in 1997 when our present government first swept to power, to the effect that the voters have at last identified an Omnicompetent Group of Politicians. Britain's voters have now just about got it clear in their heads that these particular politicians are not omnicompetent either, but, having now lost faith in the whole idea of omnicompetence (good) don't know what to do about it except be miserable (bad).

In the world of British education, the Omnicompetent Group is now called Ofsted, which stands for the Office of … what? … "st"andards in "ed"ucation? Something along those lines. Here's a story from the invaluable education.guardian.co.uk which shows the power that Ofsted now has.

A headteacher whose disappearance caused a police search ran away to the Lake District under the strain of an upcoming Ofsted inspection, it emerged yesterday.

Michael Ironmonger, 46, failed to arrive at his school, Nortonthorpe Hall in Scissett, West Yorkshire, on Monday. His wife Lesley, 43, raised the alarm and officers from three police forces spent almost two days searching the Pennines for his car.

Fears that he had been involved in an accident were dispelled when he telephoned home from Ambleside, Cumbria.

Mr Ironmonger was resting yesterday after returning to his home in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester.

His wife said: "It's a relief to have him home. We were worried out of our minds. We didn't realise Mick was under such pressure. He was due to receive a letter from Ofsted any minute telling him when they were going to visit the school for inspection.

"It just goes to show the effect these Ofsted inspections can have. I don't think people realise how much pressure they can put teachers under."

It's actually becoming quite hard to persuade anyone to be a head teacher in Britain these days.

A few years ago, the idea was that the Head Teachers themselves were the Omnicompetent Group. That turned out not to be true, and Ofsted has now replaced them as the focus of the educational version of the Omnicompetent Group Delusion, and stories like the above will serve to reinforce the idea that Ofsted are It, and Head Teachers are not.

But what happens when Ofsted itself is likewise revealed, as it will be, as having clay feet? Give it a few years, and they too will find themselves under that special form of intense public scrutiny – more like the bitter row between lovers falling out of love than a serious policy debate – that happens when yet again, education nirvana has proved elusive and yet another Omnicompetent Group is dethroned. After all giving Head Teachers nervous breakdowns is not quite the same as making education any better, now is it?

There is a real danger that Home-Educating Parents will, eventually, any decade now, be identified in Britain as education's latest Omnicompetent Group. This is certainly the thrust of quite a lot of Home-Ed propaganda I've read.

The people who now choose to do Home-Ed, in defiance of the conventions of their time, are mostly doing amazingly well. This is not at all surprising, given the kind of people that they are. But this doesn't mean that if all parents were suddenly badgered into doing Home-Ed against their present inclinations or desires, that the results would be nearly so nirvanic. It is vitally important that Home-Ed be pushed not as the latest Omnicompetence Delusion, but merely as one version of freedom in action, with all the least-worst type disappointments that freedom involves.

If Home-Ed parents do get installed as an Omnicompetent Group, and then revealed as being unworthy of such status and dethroned, and then subject to the kind of bureaucratic oversight that's now piled upon Head Teachers, then education.guadian.co.uk will in due course be running Home-Ed disaster stories similar to the story of the wretched Mr Ironmonger.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:51 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics
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February 12, 2003
Gnat's lessons

Gnat Lileks is learning. (Don't know how to link straight to today's Bleat permanently, so to speak, but it's The Bleat for today, Wed Feb 12 2003.)

Gnat has now tired of her computer games; she wants new ones. She’s exhausted the Mickey Mouse letters and shapes and numbers game, although she still enjoys the segment in which you use a water hose to knock cans off barrels. Baby’s First First Person Shooter. My wife bought a triptych of Mr. Potato Head games, and she’s done with those. So just in time I got a box from Amazon with two new games – a Curious George adventure that teaches coordination and deduction (fling your feces at the yellow hat!) and a Winnie-the-Pooh game that will delight her mightily tomorrow morning.

It’s just astonishing how easily they take to these things – I never showed her how to shut the programs down, but she figured that out; she figured out how to return to the home screens, how to tell the program she doesn’t want to save before quitting, how to double-click to launch a program. She’s figured out dragging and dropping. Put her in front of my laptop when it’s running iMovie, and she clicks on the button that starts the show. This summer I plan to give her an old 8mm camcorder - why can’t three-year-olds make movies? Wouldn’t you like to see a movie of your day you’d made when you were three?

TV? Eh. She doesn’t have time for TV anymore. When she’s done with the computer she sits on the sofa and reads a book. (By read, I mean she looks at the pages and describes the action based on her recollection of the story.) Then she asks me to write ABCs on her little blackboard easel; we arrange her stuffed friends on a chair and she plays Teacher, showing them what the letters stand for.

Ah, learning it by teaching it!

I watched a small child play with my computer the other day. Teachers fret – and teachers' unions pretend to fret – about what they children are "learning" from all this stuff. These computers are all very well, but are they getting any better at algebra??? Huge research programs conclude that stuffing computers into classrooms achieves nothing, ergo children playing computer games in their bedrooms is bad.

Wrong. Go and stand in the corner. Write out a hundred times: What Children Learn From Computers Is Computers. And since practically every job in the modern world involves, if you are badly paid, punching stuff into and getting stuff out of computers, and if you are better paid, making computers do even more than they do already, learning about computers is really something. And half the battle with computers is knowing what they can do. Once you know they can do something (because you've seen one do it in some idiot giants-and-elves game) you are in a position to find out how to make your computer do something similar. You can ask the question in the certain knowledge that there is an answer. You can demand that your company geeks do it, or failing that find out how to do it by asking the international geekosphere. Knowing what's possible. There's only one secret about The Bomb and it's public knowledge: It Works. Etc. Etc.

I come from the generation when if you push the wrong button, you are liable to get boiling water all over the living room and paint down the front of your trousers. Really important contemporaries of mine could blow up the world, if they put a finger in a seriously wrong place. I spent my youth hobby hours making sure I didn't glue the wing irrevocably to the place where the tail should go. But kids these days! They just click away and watch what happens! What can go wrong? The worst that can happen is something only very slightly bad, and you can undo it with your next click.

They'll learn. Once Our Gnat has put her first comment on Samizdata and then clicked another couple of times just to make sure it got there and consequently put it there three times, she'll learn that there are some things in life that can't be undone.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:37 PM
Category: Home education
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February 11, 2003
Sean Gabb teaches the young ladies of Asia

Last Friday morning I visited what was once called the City Polytechnic, and then the London Guildhall University, and is now part of something bigger called London Metropolitan University. My friend Sean Gabb teaches there, and I was attending one of his classes, as part of my ongoing project of snooping on and talking to different sorts of teachers and reporting back to you people on what I find.

Sean's students were mostly youngish Asian ladies, a dozen of them, and there were also two young men. One of the men and a few of the ladies were European, but most of those present were Japanese or Thai. Sean stood up and lectured at one end of the room, and his students all sat around in a large rectangle of joined up small tables like the delegates at an international conference, or the managers of a company, taking notes, and listening carefully to what Sean was telling them. I'd guess the age of everyone to be about 20. They were doing a preliminary course after which they were all hoping to move on to a full university course.

Sean was telling them about free trade. I was intrigued by the way he handled his own bias, which is strongly in favour of free trade. I am strongly in favour of free trade, he said, but many others are not. He supplied many websites to the students on various handouts he had prepared, the majority to pro free traders, but some to opponents of it. One of the pro free trade websites was the Libertarian Alliance, and two of my own pieces were even cited. I do not believe that this was merely done because I was due to visit the class.

Afterwards I talked with Sean about the matter of bias, and he told me of his disgust at having been taught himself by Marxists, but by Marxists who were not prepared to say upfront that they were Marxists. He vowed then that if he ever became teacher, he would behave differently, and tell the truth about his own opinions, and try to distinguish, much more clearly than those who taught him, between fact and opinion. However, it occurred to me that the real "bias" in this lesson was not the way Sean taught it, but the fact that it was being given at all. I mean, if you lecture about "free trade" the chances are you'll be for it, right? If you are against free trade, your lecture will be called something different like "globalisation", "neo-imperialism", or some such. Nevertheless, I like this all-out-in-the-open approach of Sean's.

In general I was impressed by Sean's use of computers to aid the educational process. He used his own computer to prepared good written materials, and he told his students to use their computers to access further material. But he did not complicate matters in the class by making use of laborate slide shows or by turning his computer screen around and making all present look at that. He just spoke sensibly and clearly, very occasionally writing simple things on the board behind him with a felt tip pen.

The other interesting thing was that a mild but definite culture clash was to be observed. At various times during the lesson Sean said that he was being paid to get them to express their own opinions, rather than merely to write down and regurgitate his, Sean Gabb's, opinions. He told them that what mattered was how well they argued their opinions, not the mere matter of what they were. I dare say that to some of the dutiful and obedient young Asian lady students, it must have sounded as if Sean was telling them: "I order you to disagree with me." But I got the feeling that most of those present fully agreed with the stuff Sean was telling them, and that even if they didn't, they were determined to take their place in the kind of world that Sean was describing so approvingly, whatever their own opinions about it might be.

Here, then, was not a clash exactly, or a collision, or anything so dramatic as that. Here were two approaches to getting educated. There is education as the acquisition of pre-packaged and teacher presented knowledge. And there is education as the ability to package, and maybe to re-package, and then to present the digested result right back at the teacher again, and to fellow students. These young people were used to one tradition, of obedience. But they were having to get used to another. And if Teacher Gabb told them that such was their duty, well then they would do it. Their own tradition kind of obliged them to accept ours, you might say.

Apparently my presence in the class somewhat interrupted what Sean was trying to do along these lines, and caused all present to behave even "better" than usual, that is to say, even more quietly than usual. So in a small way, I got in the way of what Sean was trying to achieve. But this kind of teacher-knows-best deference was always a bit of a problem, said Sean, and they took a bit of coaxing to get used to speaking up and expressing their own views. I suggested to Sean later that he might try selling the Anglo-Saxon habit of argumentation as a preparation for the job of making managerial decisions when working for a big organisation or business. Decisions are not likely to be well made if only one alternative is explored. People who are able comfortably to disagree are helpful in such circumstances, even if their views are later over-ruled. But maybe that's just the Anglo-Saxon way of decision making. Maybe these students would end up participating in less raucous and argumentative decision making processes than we are used to here in Anglo-Saxonia. Even so, they were learning about more than just free trade. They were learning about another culture, in a way that was bound to be of value to them in their future lives.

I feel sure that the predominantly female atmosphere also made a difference on the docility front. Women are, in my experience – and this is fact rather than criticism – far less comfortable speaking out with their own perhaps unsure opinions in public and formal settings. (But switch to informal conversation and they start chattering away very happily.)

Sean spoke with great clarity, and although he had clearly prepared his lecture well he did not simply read out a prepared text. He extemporised around prepared texts. All present seemed determined to learn. There was no sense of anyone just being there because they had to be. In the very act of coming to this country in the first place (no English people were present, nor any people who's first language was English), all these young people had clearly taken charge of their lives and it showed in their attitude.

The class lasted well over an hour, and at the end of it, I felt that further questioning from me would not have been welcomed by these young students, although I also felt sure that they would have endured it with great politeness if I had imposed it upon any of them. These people were there to learn from Sean, not to sit about gossiping with the likes of strangers such as me. I might have learned more about Sean's methods and what they thought about Sean's methods, if I had hung around and bothered them with further talk, but it wouldn't have felt right. They had other business, I sensed, to be getting on with. As did Sean, and as did I.

That, now I think about it, was my overall impression. These people were here to do business. London was offering them a product, and they were buying it. No fuss. No big drama. They were just getting on with business.

These students are, in their own way, a highly significant part of the very process of international free trade that Sean was telling them about.

For more about Sean Gabb as a speaker and as a thinker, I also recently did a piece about him for my culture blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
Category: BiasHigher education
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February 10, 2003
"Jack does not believe he is anything special"

David Farrer of Freedomandwhisky links to a story about a Scottish boy, eight years old and about to start an Open University degree.

Jack has been treated the same as any other student applying to the OU, and has had to submit some of his work before being accepted. A spokesman for the OU confirmed Jack should commence his science short course soon.

He said: "Our normal age range is 18-plus, but if a child shows exceptional promise and is able to cope with the rigour of the course, he will be accepted. Jack is certainly among the youngest we have had, but in such cases we make doubly certain that studying with the OU will benefit the child."

Jack does not believe he is anything special by becoming one of the youngest undergraduates in the UK.

"I just love lessons," he said. "And when mum says that is enough for the day, I moan that there's time for just a bit more."

Good for mum. Because she was the one doing it with Jack, of course. No mere school could have allowed Jack to get this far this quick. David Farrer reckons the difference was made by TV. They live in the wildest wilds of Scotland, and they can't get it.

Daryl Cobranchi collects stuff like this, but I'm guessing he may have missed this one.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
Multi-linguists are better educated

Yesterday I had one of those trifling yet enjoyable conversations in the Tube that you sometimes have, hardly more than the exchange of a few friendly words. Yet this conversation was laden with, to me, vastly intriguing intellectual baggage.

A family entered the Tube carriage I was in – two parents and three boys, very obviously tourists – and one of the boys was discussing where they were going to: Paddington. "Do we live in Paddington?" he asked, in a very American accent. "No" I interpolated, in what I hope was a jocular and friendly fashion. "You live in America." In my experience Americans are far happier to be conversed with like this in such places as Tube trains than are we Brits. What they hate is the way we ignore them all the time. But, said Mother, sitting right next to me: "No, actually we live in Austria. I'm an American. My husband is Austrian. And the words "stay" and "live" are the same in German, so my boys are liable to say "live" when what they really mean is "stay". "Ah, I see", said I, smiling again. (I hope I caused no offence.) End of conversation.

I know a number of bi-lingual and in some cases even multi-lingual children, and their parents tell me that this is a definite educational advantage. Bouncing around between different languages seems to stretch the juvenile brain just when it is most able to benefit from such stretching and to be least confused by it, or perhaps I mean least bothered about being confused. When they're older, these multi-linguists can get jobs as quite well-paid translators or interpreters when their friends are only slaving away in fast food emporia. Then they can be multi-lingual members of the international salariat, again very nicely paid, other things being equal.

But there is more to it than this. People who got to multi-lingualism very young have what I can only describe as a philosophical advantage. If you only speak and think in the one language, you are all too liable to confuse things with the mere labels for things. This is "a book", and a book is a book is a book. Well, not quite. "A book" is the label we attach to this particular subdivision (with quite blurry edges) of reality. In other languages, the labels refer to different subdivisions. In some languages there is no word for books that doesn't also include magazines. In some, the word for magazines includes paperbacks but makes no distinction between paperbacks and magazines, and books are only really books if they are hardback books. In some countries where you live and where you happen just now to be living are the same thing, as seems to be the case in Germany. To make that distinction you have to use a word like "home", or some such. Multi-linguists get all this, and they get it at a very early age. As a result their thinking is qualitatively better, because they have a deeper understanding of what language, the essential thinking tool of the brain, actually is, and is not.

"This is not a pipe", said René Magritte, in the explanatory caption which he attached to his picture of a pipe. This caused outrage. Of course it's a pipe! No. It was a picture of a pipe. It wasn't an actual pipe at all. This is the kind of thing that multi-lingual kids get at once.

Immigrants are famously better at artistic creativity than their mono-cultural rivals, and multi-lingual immigrants especially. This is surely because multi-lingualism focusses the mind wonderfully, and at a formatively early age, on the means of artistic expression. A multilinguist is in command of whatever language he ends up using. A monolinguist is all too liable only to be commanded by his language.

In short, multi-linguists are better educated.

Of course, it helps a lot that learning how to talk is something that is still done extremely well in our culture. Once governments seize control of children at the beginning of their learning-to-talk period rather than at the end of it, as they are now starting to do, multi-lingualism will then become a most tremendous problem, and fifteen per cent of the population (including most particularly those who have been confused by the government in more than one language) will grow up unable to utter a single word and in a state of intellectual malformation such as we can now only guess at. Have a nice week, everyone.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:15 PM
Category: Home education
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