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Thursday November 29 2007

Finally, a picture of the Asus Eee PC which gives you (by which I mean me) some idea of how big it is.  You would be amazed how many times I have looked at photos of this little beast that have told me everything except that.


This picture adorns a report which reveals that some optimistic educators have purchased a thousand of these things.  (Via engadget.) I am very enthusiastic about the Eee PC and it is only a matter of time before I buy one myself. 

In the next few weeks, the laptops will be in about 60 classrooms at 16 other schools. They will be shared by students and will remain in the classrooms.

Shared.  Hm.  Maybe nowadays, in the days of internet based applications, which machine you use is of less significance.  Maybe.  But, in my experience, a computer works best when some individual owns it.  If I buy an EeePC, it will be my money, and I will own it.  But, as I say, I could be out of date about that kind of thing.

But not every educator is thrilled with the $650,000 investment.

So I’m not the only one who has doubts.

Larry Moore, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, said new computers are useful tools, but a majority of teachers and students will not have access to the tiny laptop. He said the district should have spent the money on fixing broken computers in many classrooms.

So the last lot of computers they bought weren’t a complete success then. So why should this new lot be any better?  If anything, their extreme portability only makes it that much likely that these new EeePCs may get lost or stolen, or maybe dropped.  But again, that could just be my English background talking, and in particular my London foreground.  London is, I dare say, a more barbaric place than Fresno.

But there are other worries:

There are also mixed feelings among educators. Stephen Lewis, a geology professor at California State University, Fresno, thinks laptops are a useful tool, but they can also hinder the teaching process - he often sees students with their heads buried in their laptops instead of paying attention to a lecture.

That comment alludes to a far deeper problem with computers in classrooms, which is that old school classrooms are one way of teaching and learning, and computers and the internet are something else again.  Just shoving the latter into the former can surely create at least as many problems as it solves.  Teachers who know how they want to work in a room full of computers can do great work.  But what about teachers who aren’t prepared for that?

Maybe my doubts and suspicions are groundless.  But I do hope that Pablo Lopez, the journalist who wrote this first report about these EeePCs in the schools of Fresno, will follow up with further reports about how well this decision plays out.

Paul Revoir of the Dail Mail takes a wack at some celebs for not being as good at spelling and sums as he presumably is.

This is either a story about the decline of educational standards, or it is a story about how you don’t actually need that much education to make a contribution to the new economy.  Not sure which.  The headline says these celebs failed an “intelligence” test.  I wonder.  What if it was actually Paul Revoir who failed this test?

Besides which, I wasn’t completely sure about broccoli, or battallion. 

Either way, there is an air of swottish envy about this story.  Pay attention at school and all you get to do is read the Daily Mail.  Ignore the teachers and be cool and sing in a rock band, and you get to be in the Dail Mail, and much else besides. 

Wednesday November 28 2007

Incoming from Andy Wood, to whom gratitude for the kind words at the beginning, and for the rest of it:

Good to see the education blog back. I really enjoyed the previous incarnation so I’m sure this one will be a big hit.

Anyway, here’s a question that might make the basis for an item.  Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Irish businessman Bill Cullen thinks it can. He was brought up in a poor part of Dublin but reckons he owes his money-making talents to 1) in part his mother who was a very forceful fruit seller who insisted that he get involved in the market business very early and 2) the training he got running a fruit stall on the streets, learning to buy and negotiate while still only a child.

Bill Cullen is very interesting on this. He says that he learned very early on not to be intimidated by adults and not to get ripped off by them, to quibble over every penny. He also says he learned the value of relationships and favours. He stresses this so much that it seems as important as his business acumen. He has written much more about all this in his business memoir/self-help book Golden Apples.

There is another interesting business insight in the business memoir of Fred DeLuca who set up the Subway take-away sandwich shop as a student sideline. In the event he never completed his degree but Subway became one of the biggest business franchises.

Anyway, he emphasises the value for children of only earning a few pennies here and there. Even if they are just washing cars, baby-sitting or delivering papers is valuable.  He writes: “The size and scope of the job and the money earned doesn’t matter.  What mattered most is that we learned the relationship of work and money, and that we participated in the process of exchanging products and services for money. Transactions, not big transactions, not life-changing transactions , just transactions.” His book is called Start Small and Finish Big.

You might be able to use this as the basis of a blog post.


In some ways I am a nineteen-sixties-era romantic progressive when it comes to education.  But the huge elephant in the room of freedom that most of my fellow progressives neglected and still neglect is the role of economic incentives in the free society.  If children are going to be free to run their own lives and their own educations, why may they not, like free adults, respond to immediate economic incentives?  (Instead of merely distant and vagues ones like “eventually getting a better job”.) Why may they not work now, for money?  Yet, because most “progressives” were (and remain) deeply anti-progressive when it comes to economic freedom, this obvious manifestation of freedom, and obvious incentive to becoming smarter at a very early age, was and remains horribly neglected.

Tuesday November 27 2007

From The Times:

A British teacher faces a jail sentence in Sudan for insulting Islam by letting her class of seven-year-olds name a teddy bear Muhammad as part of a school project.

My first hope was that this would be journalists getting over-excited.  This, on the other hand, doesn’t sound like over-excitement:

Yesterday she was in isolation in a cell in Khartoum, and colleagues and the consular authorities were desperately trying to negotiate her release.

So how did she get into this pickle?  Judging by the cannily chosen photo at the top of the piece ...


Ms Gibbons is a lady who is willing to take risks in order to learn.  And the report says:

Ms Gibbons had left Liverpool for Sudan in July, after leaving her job as a primary school deputy head in the city. An experienced traveller whose MySpace entry talks of her passion for learning about other cultures, ...

Now a bit more experienced. 


Education encompasses teaching and learning specific skills,and also something less tangible but more profound: the imparting of knowledge, positive judgement and well-developed wisdom.  Education has as one of its fundamental aspects the imparting of culture from generation to generation (see socialization). Education means ‘to draw out’, facilitating realisation of self-potential and latent talents of an individual.

Not bad.

Monday November 26 2007

Last week David Thompson sent me an email about pencils.  He’d done a posting about pencils, and given my interest just now in thin pictures, might I perhaps be interested?  Well, I was, of course, and I am.  But I never got around to doing anything about it.  Then I realised that this newly activated blog was the very place for a piece on pencils.


When you are trying to teach small children to write, as I have been doing lately, you realise what a truly treasurable invention the pencil, together with its partner the rubber, is.

There are many kinds of teaching, but at the heart of a certain and very important sort of teaching is the refusal to accept errors.  No.  Wrong.  Please rub it out.  Please do it again, not like that but like this.  If you don’t tell the child he’s got it wrong, he’ll end up thinking he got it right when he didn’t.  You will be misinforming him, which (in this kind of teaching) is a major teaching crime.  So, all errors must be picked on, and preferably corrected.

Ink is indelible.  (Well, there is Tippex I suppose, but it takes far too long to dry.) Error correction on any scale of inked writing results in a confusion of crossings out and general disfigurements.  But when a pencil is used, all errors can be rubbed out and replaced with, if not perfection then at least adequacy.  If the child is going to take away the work, then let the work be an example of what it should be like, and a living proof that the child is capable of achieving just that.

After half an hour of hard work last Tuesday evening, I and my slightly rebellious pupil had between us produced half a page of really quite reasonable handwriting for him to take away, look at again if inclined, and maybe also show to his mother.  (Who is, after all, paying for this, and is definitely interested in what goes on.)

What is the history of the pencil?  This is what it says here:

The word pencil is derived from the Latin pencillus, meaning ‘painters’ brush.’ The earliest pencils were, in fact, fine brushes that hardly resemble our modern version. When graphite was discovered in Bavaria, however, the fine hairs of the brush were replaced with this new find and encased in wood. Graphite was originally known as plumbago - acting like lead - and up to this day people still believe that pencils contain lead, which is not the case.

The type of graphite used today wasn’t discovered until 1564. This solid, high purity graphite gave a far better result than that previously used. This graphite was initially held in the hand without any covering, The mess it made of the writer’s hand, however, became a major hassle and soon efforts were made to overcome this problem. The graphite was wrapped in a waxy material by some, enclosed in a metal tube by others and wrapped with cord or string-like material by still others. A wood encased graphite rod pencil wasn’t manufactured until 1660. This was further refined in the late 1700s when a method of grinding graphite with clay to produce a much finer, more consistent and smoother pencil was found. Thus, the modern pencil was developed into a form which has remained substantially unchanged for 300 years.

I believe in pictures on blogs, even educational blogs, and even though pictures have a very ambiguous place in modern pedagogy.  They are used, for instance, to encourage the victims of look-and-say to look-and-guess rather than to read what the actual letters say.  Nevertheless, pictures make a blog seem more welcoming.  They reinforce the idea of an active intelligence creating it, and changing it frequently.  So, there will be frequent pictures here.  A pencil picture is the perfect start.

Sunday November 25 2007

Fraser Nelson tries to educate Gordon Brown, but is pessimistic because of Brown’s “blind faith in state-monopoly education”.

Nelson also links to this, which he calls “superb”, and which is the enterprise I volunteer teach for, once a week, every Tuesday evening.  So I guess that makes me a little bit superb also.

He also links to this by Robert Whelan, which explains the thinking behind the Civitas approach to education.

It might be a problem if these schools become some sort of political foothall, attracting excessive hopes from the right, and excessive and very public criticism from the left.

In that podcast with Patrick Crozier that I did last week, and which I already linked to from here, I mentioned a blog comment about perverse incentives to teachers.  What I was talking about was the first comment on this posting by Matthew Sinclair, from “Alex”, which started like this:

Here’s an incentive structure for you, Matt: someone very close to me teaches at a comprehensive school. Every pupil they teach who is in an exam year has a predicted grade assigned to them. If the pupil is assigned a C and achieves a B, the teacher gets one point. If they achieve a D, the teacher gets minus 1 point. At the end of the year, if the teacher is in minus numbers, they have to explain themselves, get all their lessons reviewed etc. etc. The person close to me has one class who are all predicted A*s, so they are guaranteed to get punished as long as just one pupil “only” achieves an A.

I’m not necessarily saying that that system is outrageous.  It’s just a good, real example of how exam-obsessed teachers are incentivised to be.

Alex then supplies another example of a perverse incentive, this time involving truancy of a sort that a really rather good school finds almost impossible to control, and which it is then punished for.  Finally, he apologises for going on a bit.  No apology necessary, in my opinion.

Saturday November 24 2007

I am immediately rediscovering one of the best things about specialist blogging, which is that I am immediately coming across more people whom I disagree with, writing about that same specialisation.  Richard Craig, for instance:

The IPPR report had shown categorically that “faith schools” are socially unrepresentative of the areas that they serve and that they covertly select pupils to screen out disadvantaged and badly behaved pupils.

Craig says that these faith schools should accept whoever is allocated to them, and not discriminate.  But, quite apart from anything else, what about their faith?  Aren’t they even to be allowed to pick, say, the children of devout Christians, for example, over the children of devout atheists who likewise want to cherry pick, by grabbing the good education but setting aside the God stuff?  Why should Christians be made to submit to such arrangements?

My prejudice is that all worthwhile institutions screen out people they don’t want, and that most of them are quite open about this, because it is perfectly acceptable to all, if often also hurtful and frustrating to the unlucky ones screened out, that they should do this.  How else can these institutions set about accomplishing their purposes and keep the people who are already enthusiastic participants happy and productive?  But schools are widely talked about as not things that should be allowed to discriminate in whom they accept.  Instead, they are regarded as parts of a national system which any educator participates in, as a sort of public servant, subject to national supervision.  If you an educator, you can’t be allowed to pick and choose your pupils, because that will upset the national system.  Cherries may not be picked, because rotting cherries must - must - be rescued, and absolutely not left to rot.  Each school must scoop up all the pupils in their allocated area or category.  No child must be left behind.  I believe that I do understand the logic of this.

But I don’t agree with it.  I see the “national system” of education working best if it instead becomes the aggregate of everyone involved doing only what they consent to.  Schools should not have to accept pupils they don’t like the look of.  Teachers should not have to teach pupils they can’t be doing with.  Pupils who dislike particular teachers shouldn’t have to submit to them.  Most of all, nobody making and acting on these judgments should be obliged by anything other than their own interest in being thought reasonable to explain or justify such decisions before they take effect, any more than I have to explain why I avoid a particular shop or restaurant because I don’t fancy the look of it.  This is how the national adult economy works, and, compared to the “national system” - i.e. the bad national system - bits where the consent principle isn’t followed and where everyone just does as they are told (or at least goes through some of the motions of that), consent world works quite well.  Yes, the lower reaches of consent world are pretty horrible.  But the lower reaches of those bad national system arrangements are at least as bad, and the average level of accomplishment, by the middle ranks, of bad, non-consenting national systems is woeful compared to the average achievements of the consenting bits of the world.  All the progress these days, all the quality increases, price cutting, market expanding, excitement generating stuff is being done in consent world, along with lots of failure and disappointment of course.  Large swathes of the bad, unconsenting national education system we now have are a demoralised slough of despond by comparison.

Many faith schools now operate mostly outside this slough of despond.  Long may that continue.

As to the other common objection to faith schools, that they may be inculcating and spreading a toxic and threatening faith, well, the answer to that is not to pervert the entire education system just so that these particular toxic schools may be disinfected.  Particular toxic faith schools should be dealt with as the special cases that they are.  Further acts of discrimination are required, in other words, between toxic and non-toxic.  If the principles that are proclaimed while toxic faith schools are being detoxified also mean that other non-toxic faith schools have to be shut down or otherwise unnecessarily intruded upon, then further work is needed on those principles.

Friday November 23 2007

Several newspapers have picked up on this apparently very bad news for stay-at-home dads:

Boys brought up by their fathers during their early years are less well prepared for school, claims a Bristol University study.

The controversial finding comes as more men are taking on childcare responsibilities and schools, politicians and newspaper pundits are united in urging fathers to get more involved in their children’s upbringing.

After looking at the early childcare experiences of over 6,000 children born in the Bristol area in the early 1990s who lived at least their early lives in a household with both parents, Elizabeth Washbrook concludes that some fathers appear not to provide the same quality of intellectual stimulation to their young sons as the children’s mothers do.

“Some” fathers.  Well, surprise surprise.  So that bit at the start should really read: “Some boys brought up by their fathers ...”.

The point of the research is not that stay-at-home dads are doomed to failure whatever they do.  No, what they say is that stay-at-home dads tend not to do enough.  So the moral is not: go back to work you sandal-wearing twat.  The moral is: do a bit more and all will be well.

It’s always interesting to ask of any bit of research into human behaviour: if everyone knew this, would it remain true?  In this case, maybe not.  Or, not so much.

Thursday November 22 2007

Yes.  As I write this, the sidebar is a shambles, having been copied from my personal blog and just cut, with tops and bottoms of lists left in to ensure that I can see what I’m doing when I add new stuff.  Today, I intend to change that.  A bit.  If you have any suggestions of things I should add, please comment at will.

On Monday, to mark the start of Brian Micklethwait’s Education Blog, my friend Patrick Crozier recorded a conversation about education between him and me, but mostly me.  Patrick found this a rather confusing and difficult experience, because instead of patiently developing just the one thesis, I deliberately flew off at as many tangents as I could grab hold of.  “And there’s another huge education story ...” Whenever the chance arose to abandon one half baked idea and to slap another idea in the oven to half bake that as well, I did so.  It didn’t make things any easier that we got interrupted a couple of times.

Anyway, if you want to know the sort of notions that rattle about in my head on the subject of education and if you have three quarters of an hour to spare, give it a go.  On the other hand, if you don’t care for podcasts and would prefer to read such things, then carry on reading this blog.

Wednesday November 21 2007

There are two ways to get a specialist blog cranked up: the proper way, and this way.

The proper way is already to be an expert on the subject, or failing that to have already boned up ferociously on it, and then to let rip, preferably with an eye-catching manifesto or list of principles that gets lots of admiring attention.

And then there is this way, which is just to start it up.  For some bloggers, they know and so they blog.  For me, I blog, and thus I learn.  Blogging is for me a huge educational tool.  To learn what I need to learn about education, to the point where I might eventually start to have detectable impact, I need to start blogging anyway.

Or rather: blogging again.  Because I have been here before, with an education blog called, simply, Brian’s Education Blog, which crashed and burned nearly three years ago.  (There are navigable ruins of that, but I’ll discuss them later, probably.) I took that disaster to mean that The Universe wanted me to take a break from education blogging and just to follow my whims for a while, so I did, during which episode I wondered whether education blogging was something I really wanted to do with even a regular slice of the rest of my life.

I realised that it was.  I liked that first stint of education blogging, for all sorts of reasons.  Of all the things I might now be doing, education blogging is probably now one of the best uses of what talents I possess.

There is much more that I could say now, all manner of tangents I could fly off at, but I have already learned that whereas it is sometimes a fine thing to say nineteen things in one blog posting, nearer to one per posting is usually the best rule to follow.