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Chronological Archive • March 23, 2003 - March 29, 2003
March 28, 2003
Guitar anybody?

So I want to get my BEdBlog duties over and done with for the week, and I type "Brian's Education" into google, to see what I've been up to that I must have been doing while sleep walking. And it seems I'm branching out into giving guitar lessons.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:47 AM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
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The educational sector in Korea

The details of this story, courtesy the Korea Times, don't interest me so much as does its overall tone. You surely wouldn't see a British newspaper, of any political hue, talk so candidly about the "education sector".

Foreign universities will be allowed to establish branches here leading local language institutes and other education providers to face tougher competition in the near future.

This is part of the government's recently-finalized plan to open up various service sectors to the foreign market, officials from the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development said yesterday.

The proposal to open up the educational sector will be submitted to the World Trade Organization by Monday as part of the commitment under the Doha Development Agenda that calls member countries to develop a list of ideas to open domestic service sectors to foreign competition.

The ministry said it is inevitable to open the educational service market in the face of the new economic round to increase competitiveness of local educational institutions.

A constant theme here is that if a nation is flagging in its commitment to education, merely chucking teachers at the problem won't change things very much. (Example: Britain.) South Korea, on the other hand, reads at least in this article like a society that contains within itself such an urge towards educational advance that no amount of mere pedagogic inadequacy can hold it back. Demand simply demands its own supply into existence, or in this particular case, it sucks supply in from foreign parts.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:14 AM
Category: Free market reforms
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March 27, 2003
Philip Hensher on Westminster School

Natalie Solent links to a delightful article by Philip Hensher earlier this week for independent.co.uk about Westminster School, which is a literal stone's throw from my flat, although they seem nice enough boys and I'm never tempted actually to throw stones. Hensher had written an earlier article attacking private education, and so now he's taking a close look at what he criticised, the way you do, so that he can say yes to the question about whether he's ever looked at one of these places close up.

So he made his day trip, and he captures all manner of things very well. In lots of ways he's impressed. However, he does capture the ghastly confidence of privileged boys of that age particularly well:

I had lunch with some of the Queen's Scholars, whose fees are partly, and in some cases entirely paid on their behalf. None of the ones I met was from a noticeably different social class from any other boy, and their manners, over a spectacularly repulsive sausage in a bun (I went away and had lunch in Soho afterwards) were exactly the same. They took me to task in a grand way over my original article, and when I was not to be goaded, moved on to other columns of mine they had found on the internet, to them, no doubt, just as inexcusable. The words "Let us move on, now, Dr Hensher, to what you wrote in November last year about the Brighton pier" were never actually uttered, but it was a close thing.

Bored, I took charge and asked them what they were going to university to study. One boy was going to Oxford to do English with Russian. "I don't know whether it's changed," I said sociably, "but in my time, you were handed an Anglo-Saxon grammar and a copy of Alfred's letter King Alfred, you know, to some dull bishop and told to come back next week with an accurate translation. Rather terrifying, actually." "I expect," the boy said generously, "that if one has some knowledge of languages, it is rather less terrifying." I made no response. It would have been easy to suggest that there was no reason to think my grasp of three European languages had been any less than his own. I also wondered whether, when I was 18, I would have so confidently talked down to a visiting novelist of some small celebrity and critical regard old enough to be his father. I would have it no other way; I wish I had, in fact, had something of that confidence. But by money and social class I was barred, and in some ways still am barred, from that certainty.

One of the relentless messages of these places is that you are indeed privileged. You are getting a superb education. All others are far less fortunate. Those who go to less grand fee-paying schools are inevitably less superior persons. And Heaven help those who go to state schools. I know what this is like, because for a decade this was my world also.

But it's hard to imagine how any school system could ever be completely otherwise. Suppose, as Hensher recommends, that all social classes were forced into each other's company, by the illegalisation of fee-paying schools, or by their incorporation into the top reaches of the state system, with the cleverest poor children being shoehorned into what are now the poshest fee-paying schools, and the dumb hooray-Henry or nice-but-dim Tim types elbowed aside into bog-standard comprehensives or the like, to make way. What you would get would be John Hughes high school movies, riddled with class warfare. There'd just be different miseries and different humiliations, different triumphs and different varieties of arrogance.

A prison is still a prison. If you have to go to one of these things, and when there you are the object of an industrial process that is done to you rather than the subject of a life that is done by you, you'll take it out on others. There'll be class warfare, and pecking order savageries.

Even if, as I favour, you release the boys (the boys especially) from prison and let them run their own lives, they'll probably find new ways to be insufferable. Allow them to be film directors, futures traders, ditch diggers and private detectives at fourteen, and they'll still find ways to piss off the likes of Philip Hensher. If you fancy yourself as a mini star in middle-age world, teenage boys who don't know you and don't especially want to know you are going to get under your skin, politely or rudely, but one way or another, no matter how the education system is configured. You'd still have verbal dog fights with the younger dogs, and do sneaky things like letting them have the last word on the day without fighting back, but then writing your last word in The Independent. Not the least of the pleasures of this piece is what a ruthlessly revealing self-portrait Hensher supplies. Simply, he takes himself more seriously than they all do, teachers and boys alike. It's a genteel dog fight from the moment he sets foot in the place, starting with them getting his name wrong, and him getting huffy about that.

As for what he thinks should be done about it all, Hensher doesn't just exaggerate how much social melting would go on in his big nationalised educational pot. He also forgets how much worse all schools would become if (a) present Sovietisation trends continue in the state ssystem, and if (b) schools which are presently semi-independent of the official national system such as Westminster get much more completely swallowed up in the same mess as well, as he recommends. What Hensher is arguing for is a system that he hopes would be equally better for all, but would actually be unequally worse. It wouldn't achieve equality of happiness; just more and unequal misery.

However, my basic point is that Hensher's is a good piece. He went to a particular place and recorded what he actually saw and heard, and how he felt about it. I don't share his policy prejudices. Nevertheless this is real stuff, not waffle based on phoney statistics such as you so often get in the national education media pages nowadays. I recommend the whole thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:33 PM
Category: The private sector
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March 26, 2003
A novelist overwhelmed by paperwork

Here's some more chapters and verses on the theme of how excessive form-filling and paperwork is driving people out of the teaching profession, this time from novelist and journalist Emma Lee-Potter, who fancied the idea of trying to become an English and Media Studies lecturer. Until, that is, she actually started studying for it. The idea of a journalist and novelist exercising her own judgement as to what it might make sense to teach young people, and how to set about doing it, seems to me very obvious. But that isn't how things are done nowadays:

No, what infuriated me was the teaching profession's emphasis on self-evaluation and reflective practice. Every lesson plan had to be accompanied by written rationales for the teaching methods we had chosen. Tutor and student feedback on every lesson we taught had to be repeatedly scrutinised and analysed not only verbally but on special self-evaluation forms.

And this didn't just mean checking that you had fulfilled your aims and objectives there were issues such as whether the seating, lighting and classroom temperature were up to scratch, whether handouts and acetates were easy to read and what teaching principles the lesson demonstrated. We then had to draw up detailed action plans for future teaching. I don't know of any other profession where you sit down at the end of the day and fill in a self-evaluation form. Isn't it common sense to learn from your mistakes and try to avoid making them again in future?

The biggest bugbear was having to keep a private "reflective diary" or "learning log" to record your thoughts and feelings about your "teaching experiences". Looking back at mine, it is full of angrily scrawled comments such as "increasingly unsure" and "so irritated this doesn't seem relevant to teaching". I'm all for learning from experience and striving to do better next time round but in a profession that's already overflowing with paperwork, it seemed mad to create yet more.

Sounds like compulsory blogging, doesn't it? No doubt that too will come.

When you hear the word "safeguards", this is what you must imagine. Another form for someone to fill in.

The bottom line is that teachers are not now trusted by the government, and the result of all the schemes to force these untrusted people to do their job properly is to make it impossible for them to do their job properly. The good ones, like Emma Lee-Potter, leave. The ones who remain are the ones who would find any other job harder to come by than talented persons like her. They're second-raters, in other words. So the official education system degenerates still more, which causes further distrust. Which requires more "safeguards", etc. etc., until meltdown in achieved. Being a legally recognised teacher becomes literally impossible.

I have no direct experience of this downward spiral, but I am reading and hearing so many people writing and saying this stuff that I am starting to believe that western official education really may be heading for Soviet-style collapse.

Sadly, this collapse will probably be disguised. Out here in reality-world, people are learning all the time, under their own steam, just the way I'm learning under my own steam about official education. There'll be a completely hopeless official education system, the wreckage of which floats in an ocean of unofficial, self-powered progress and success. And nobody except me will notice.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
Category: Sovietisation
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March 25, 2003
The Polish software miracle

At the Libertarian Conference in Krakov which I have recently returned from, I had the chance to talk with some of Poland's brightest and best young people. In yesterday's posting immediately after I got back home, I sketched out the story of the upper reaches of Polish education, and told of a generation of seriously wasted not-quite rocket scientists.

It so happens that I have a tiny moment of experience of these people, because I visited Warsaw in 1986, where I was supposed to collect information about the computer hardware needs of the Polish political underground. I was as completely out of my depth as I have ever been in my life. Talk about level of incompetence. These guys knew more then about computers than I will ever know.

I don't believe it mattered, because the message I took back to London was very simple. Just send us anything you can, they said. Whatever you send, we'll get it working, they said.

So I learned then of the nascent Polish computer software miracle, and I also learned the reason for it. At that time, computer hardware in places like London was rocketing forward, leaping ahead in power, plunging in price, much as it has been doing ever since. Not so in Poland. Hardware there was called "hardware" because it was so hard to come by, and once you got your hands on a computer, you made it do things scarcely dreamed of outside Silicon Valley. If you were Polish in 1986, for example, you made a laser printer print out the Polish alphabet. Only God and the Poles knew how you made that happen, then, if the thing wouldn't do it already. Thus the Eastern European software miracle. These guys were and still are largely self-taught.

Then, following the collapse of communism, along comes the internet.

Now as in 1986 I got hopelessly lost when confronted with technical detail, but one of these software wizzes sat next to me at the final supper we all had after our Conference had ended, and he told me of how the "open source" software movement, or world, or tendency or whatever it is, provides the first rung on the ladder from smart Polish kid to highly paid computer wizz. So is the Internet a case of "you ain't seen nothing yet"? Then as now, they knew the story far better than I did. You bet, they said. Cue a long exposition of, approximately speaking, the convergence of portable phone and computer technology.

And these guys told me something else that I found a little easier to understand. I've already written here about how the Japanese have a tough time learning all the Japanese that the Japanese have to learn in order to become fully functioning Japanese persons. Well, something similar apparently applies to the Polish language. This too is, compared to English, a very elaborate and unwieldy language, with none of the colloquial short cuts and variations that we have to enable us to say what we want. Translating from Polish to English can apparently shorten things by as much as thirty per cent, because in English you can say more with less.

I had given a talk at the end of the Conference in my usual under-prepared, but I trust reasonably thoughtful, witty and provocative way, which made up in rapport and entertainment value what it lacked in ready-scripted coherence. I wanted to provoke thought, not merely to elicit respectful admiration. I hope they enjoyed it. They said they did. But they said something else. They said: "You couldn't do that in Polish." Polish can't be juggled with the way English can. You can't, they said, think about it while you're doing it. Your brain couldn't cope with the complications of Polish, and thinking, at the same time.

So does that mean, I asked, that once you've learned Polish, other languages are a relative doddle? Correct, they said.

And computer software likewise. Once you've mastered the unforgiving complexities that must be got right in Polish if your Polish is to be right, you are ready to do software, where logic and consistency and elaboration are also the rules, rather than slap-dash say-it-how-you-feel-it expressiveness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:56 PM
Category: Technology
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March 24, 2003
Lessons from Poland

I'm back from my trip to Krakov, and am in a position to tell you a little about the state of Polish education. My informants understandably concentrated on the top end of the system, both in age and in academic attainment, because that's the bit they all have most and most recent experience of.

I'll tell the story in two parts. First, there's what happened during Communism, and second, what has happened since.

Under Communism, the cleverer young people of Poland worked ferociously hard. Life did not offer many means of self advancement, but the people in charge of Eastern Europe did want weapons technologists. But there were not very many university places for such people. So, these places were keenly sought after, and the successful applicant got such a place by scoring percentages in maths exams, for example, that I still suspect of being an elaborate practical joke at my expense. I mean, 96 per cent? And in a test that most British maths graduates wouldn't get higher than 70 per cent in. Apparently so.

The point of this is that not only were the scientific and technological elite superbly diligent pupils; so too were all the ones who were trying for these positions but who would eventually fail to get them. The failures became, I don't know, minicab drivers I suppose.

My hosts were at pains to point out that this wasn't any sort of government plan. It hadn't been their deliberate intention to crank out a generation of semi-brilliant maths and science and technology wizzes. That's just the way it turned out. And to reinforce their point that none of this was deliberate, it occurs to me that this "policy" may have had quite a bit to do with the downfall of communism. First you stir up their minds and make them very, very clever. Then you treat most of them like empty milk bottles. Not clever politics.

What has happened since communism confirms one of the Continuing Theories of this blog, which goes that the private sector reflects the gaps and failures in the existing system. Whatever the official system does well, the private sector ignores. Whatever it does badly, it compensates for.

And what the Polish education system under Communism did really badly was, as I have just explained, educating the not-quite so-bright kids. It subjected them to an idiotically competitive exam race, and then just when it ought to have carried on educating them pretty well considering, it spat them out like so many failed Olympic gymnasts and forgot them.

Since the fall of communism there has been a huge eruption of free market education, in the form of what in Britain are called "minor public schools", and their university equivalent. There is no Winchester or Eton, where the richest and best get the best teaching there is. The state system continues to educate the brightest and best very well. But there are now lots of newly emerging private schools and private universities, of very variable quality, some of which are pretty good and improving, but many of which are decidedly dodgy, to teach the capable but not dazzling.

Some of them said the state system in general was descending into rack and ruin. Others said it wasn't that bad, and that the big change wasn't anything getting worse, but rather the sense that averagely clever averagely hardworking young people now have that if they work hardish and smartish they now had a chance to make something of their lives. And as you would expect, the people saying that things were getting worse were the people who had made it to the top under the old system, or who would have, while the optimists were the ones who didn't or wouldn't have been winners.

Which illustrates another point I probably go on about rather a lot here, what with it being true, which is that educational effort and educational attainment is anything but a mere matter of throwing quality teachers at pupils and watching them teach up a storm and crank out super-educated people. There is also the incentive structure of the wider society, which I would say is more important. If you have so-so teachers but seriously good reasons for people to want to study like hell in other words if you have Poland under late communism you get educational fireworks. If you have good teachers, but pupils who have no particular reason to do anything except sex, drugs and rock and roll, sex and drugs and rock and roll is what will be done.

If you want to know why state education in Britain is, at the bottom end, in decline, don't leave it at blaming the teachers, the teacher training colleges, the professors of education, etc., dreadful though a lot of these people undoubtedly are. Ask yourself this. Why does the teaching profession and most especially the teacher teaching profession consist largely of out-of-their-depth mediocrities, or worse? Is it inherent in teaching that it attracts only the dregs of society? I think not. The other explanation is that good, positive, optimistic people join the teaching profession by the thousand, and are either turned into incompetent miseries by the idiocy of their circumstances, or they leave and do something else where their goodness, unlike in state education, has the chance to do some good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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