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Thursday January 31 2008

The regular education news is the usual maelstrom of misery, with the front page news tomorrow being that school places should be allocated by lottery.

So once again, I turn for relief to organisations which still, approximately speaking, control their own destiny, like Bath Rugby Club:

Ever wondered what happens in the room to the left of the main bar in the clubhouse? Well, every week, schools from around the area are treated to the unique experience of the Playing for Success (PfS) Scheme at Bath Rugby’s Education Centre or the Bath REC for short.

Run by Pete Brealey and Chris Andrew, the PfS initiative seeks to develop children’s literacy, numeracy, self-esteem and confidence through rugby. With constant interaction with first team and high profile players, children are able to utilise the facilities around the Rec to learn.

Last week, the Bath REC had its official launch and invited guests were entertained with a number of events including a traditional Haka performed by pupils of Fitzmaurice Primary School, a talk from Children’s Minister, Kevin Brennan MP and a reading from school pupil, Kyle Grogan.


Fitzmaurice Deputy Head, Paula Dawkins who also spoke at the launch feels that the scheme provides a unique learning environment that has shown tangible results back in the classroom: “It is a fantastic project with fantastic staff. It is a vivid learning experience and back in school the impact has been huge.”

Politicians are now contributing very little that is positive to education, but they do wield enormous destructive power, so it is probably a good thing to keep these people, as it were, on side, by inviting one of the tribe to be present and to wallow and photo-opportunise in the good vibes of this promising sounding scheme.  “Government Minister launches the Bath Rugby Education Centre” is what the Bath rugby website itself says.  Launches as in smashed a bottle against it, or some such gesture.  I doubt if Kevin Brennan MP did very much else to help.

Sport is a crucial part of the story of how boys are turned into men.  As many schools have retreated from sport, and consequently lost some of their ability to educate boys, it is only logical that the sports clubs should move down the age scale and into education.  There will be more stories like this.

Wednesday January 30 2008

imageI didn’t have - well, I didn’t make - any edublogging time today, but found unexpected fun by googling for education images.  I found the poster on the right here, where they apparently have another eleven thousand nine hundred posters of an educational sort, most of which seem to be more educational but less amusing.

I know, record deals are so twentieth century, but I still like it.

Tuesday January 29 2008

Scott Wickstein, at Samizdata, quotes from a CBS news report about how the early episodes of Sesame Street now come with a safety warning:

What parent today would want their child to see kids running through a construction site or jumping on an old box spring? Scenes like the ones included on the new DVD would probably not make it into today’s program now.

“We wouldn’t have children on the set riding without a bicycle helmet,” Rollins Westin says.

And what’s that little girl doing with that man?

“In the very first episode, Gordon takes a little girl’s hand who he’s just met on the street, befriends her and takes her into his home to give her ice cream,” Rollins Westin said. “That’s something we wouldn’t do on the show today.”

When I grew up, the Victorians were derided for being obsessed with sex and with protecting everyone against it.  Now, the equivalent danger that the equivalent generation obsesses about is just ... danger, having sex without a condom being included in the big snake-basket of danger along with riding a bicycle without a helmet.  “Unsafe” is the new naughty.

Plus, also on Samizdata, this, about bossing young people around even after the age of eighteen.

Monday January 28 2008

David Friedman quotes Adam Smith:


No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education.

Compulsion is bad because superfluous.  But an “anonymous” commenter prefers William Godwin, because he goes further.  Compulsion is bad because bad.


Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.

Sadly though, compulsion can work, at any rate to the satisfaction of those doing the compelling.  If all it did was achieve the pure opposite of its purpose, it would surely not be so prevalent.

Saturday January 26 2008

I’ve been reading more of To Miss with Love that I also linked to in my previous posting, and in particular a posting about a girl called Angel.  It contains this:

Last year, I used to catch Angel peering up staircases, hiding behind columns, terrified of what might happen to her if she were to run into Psycho and Vicious. Of course, they were in her class, so it was hard to avoid them. Often she would truant lessons, desperate to save herself from the constant humiliation to which she was subjected. Angel was horribly horribly unhappy.

These days, Angel is transformed. Everyday I am amazed that the Angel I know now is the same Angel I knew then. She skips around, happy as ever. Her confidence has grown in abundance and no longer is she to be found hiding from other children.

But, it is not a happy story.  To find out why it is not a happy story, read the whole thing.  It’s not that long but it packs quite a punch.  And see also the first comment, one of those “let me say this as well before anyone challenges this” comment-number-ones by the blogger herself, after she has seen what she’s put and imagined the possible responses.

My deepest thanks to TDK, commenting on this posting, for alerting me to a blogger who is new to me but look very major, To Miss with Love.

And right away, we step into the hornet’s nest that is the debate about exclusion.  Forty one comments and counting when I last looked, from both ends of the debate, heated on both sides.

I will now use a classic junior blogger technique, and recycle the comment I have just contributed to the senior blog.  This was my pennyworth, just added to the above posting, making it 42 comments:

Fascinating. I’ve not read all of these comments right through so I may be repeating a point already made, but if so, sorry, but I believe it worth repeating.

“Exclusion” is not just the actual process of chucking someone out. It is the credible threat that one might do this in the future, to a pupil behaving badly.

Without that threat, the teacher has no power to make a badly behaved pupil behave better. With it, a badly behaving pupil might learn to behave better. It is no exaggeration, surely, to say that such a threat might make all the difference to a life which might have gone either way, to criminality and destruction and self-destruction, or towards something much better.

In other words, the exclusion threat actually does favours to many of those who are risking exclusion by behaving badly, by facing them with the possible consequences of bad behaviour before those consequences become actual.

Letting bad kids do as they please, ... until one day you slam them in jail, doesn’t seem like a good policy to me, nor even a nice one.

Rather badly explained. I have much to learn about teaching. (I do teach a little, and we do have the exclusion threat on our side, but we almost never have to talk about it.) But I hope some people understood that.

And I hope you did too.

ADDENDUM: I see that Shuggy had also commented on this ruckus, which became a ruckus because of this.

Friday January 25 2008

Quote from I hated school, a blog posting by climber and climbing coach Dave MacLeod:


Before I found a focus, I was in the same situation as many kids. I went to school and sat in classes where teachers spent a big proportion of the time keeping order and not developing interest. I didn’t enjoy it, and even as a kid I could recognise there was much time being wasted.

Once I started climbing, and began skipping school, I was the opposite from a draw on resources. I learned by myself, eagerly. Where before it took teacher time and resources to force feed me learning, now I took it in as fast as I could with no additional help at all. In an ideal situation, school should have been a place that focused this energy, and facilitated even faster, deeper and broader learning. But my teachers were too busy trying to get me to fit the straightjacket to get near this opportunity.

That’s not so much of an indictment as a sympathy vote for teachers.

The solution for youngsters – skip school and go climbing? Of course not! Try lots of things and find something that makes you want to stay up at night and read about video compression algorithms for whatever you want to shoot and get on youtube or something, or training for climbing, or… – whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.

This is exactly the kind of piece I am eager to learn of and link to, so deep thanks to Alan Little for alerting me to this one.  I was sorely tempted to copy and paste the whole thing, which is not so very much longer and well worth reading right through.

Many teachers will surely share MacLeod’s attitude to igniting the passion of pupils rather than just bashing a standard curriculum into them, and will surely feel just as strongly about that straightjacket that MacLeod hated, and which they too are obliged to submit to.  I deduce from this that the regime MacLeod endured dates from about 1990.  By now, the straightjacket may have got even tighter.

The picture to the right is a slice of this one.  More MacLeod (and others) in action snaps here.  MacLeod also does lectures.

Thursday January 24 2008

Hot news from the latest Never Mind The Buzzcocks.  They had an arrange-the-celeb-lookalikes-in-order-in-a-line-according-to-how-qualified-the-real-person-is-from-the-most-qualified-to-the-least-qualified round.  Hairy Brian May, Queen guitarist, won because he has a doctorate in astrophysicsTom Jones, on the other hand, has no qualifications at all.

Now they’ve just had “We don’t need no education ...” in the what’s-the-next-line-after-this-line? round.  I still don’t know what the next line was, because I immediately started typing this.  But I am reminded that there was an answer to this claim, many weeks ago, from Moss of The IT Crowd:

“Yes you do.  You’ve just done a double negative.”

Moss, who never quite gets it, has very little except education.

I know what you’re thinking.  If I was watching Buzzcocks, I obviously wasn’t watching this.  No, but I have recorded it.

I also then, thanks to the magic of Channel 4 plus 1 (i.e. Channel 4 exactly the same but an hour later), recorded thisEton again.

An educational recollection from Alice, self-styled Mad Housewife, provoked by the death of Heath Ledger:

I hope Heath Ledger rests in peace, while (some of) the rest of us ponder the difficult questions these things always bring up, and refuse to settle for comfortable answers.

When famous young people die, we always want some reason why, because as the successful and the celebrated, these individuals somehow seem to represent the culture we belong to. This is all the more the case when we identify with them, seeing something of ourselves or, worse, who we would aspire to be- because if the person you aspire to be meets their demise shockingly early, drugged and alone, what hope for those aspirations?

I used to teach English to mostly privileged teenagers in London, and when River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain died, the place was positively awash with morbid poetry, I can tell you. ...

Every time I come across a mention of a blogger teaching from now on, I may blog about it here.

Wednesday January 23 2008

Education arguments are big news here in Britain, especially in what used to be the broadsheets.  The headline at the bottom of the front page of today’s Times reads “Tory fudge on faith” (online it’s a bit more long-winded):

Parents who pretend that they have Christian beliefs in order to win places in church schools are doing the best for their children, David Cameron believes.

The Tory leader refuses to criticise the “middle-class parents with sharp elbows”. Asked for his views on the families accused of playing the system, he says: “I think it’s good for parents who want the best for their kids. I don’t blame anyone who tries to get their children into a good school. Most people are doing so because it has an ethos and culture. I believe in active citizens.”

Mr Cameron will learn this year whether his own daughter has won a place at a state-funded Church of England school in Kensington, West London.

This month The Times reported a surge in late baptisms into the Catholic Church, further evidence that some parents may be finding religion at a convenient moment in their children’s education. Fears that middle-class parents are adopting religion to get their children into popular schools have led some Labour MPs to call for an end to the expansion of faith schools.

And I will now beat my free market drum.  The thing about markets is that demand creates supply.  But if the state is creating supply, there’s never enough of the nice stuff, and an oversupply of the rubbish stuff.  Hence all the political unpleasantness.

Today I had a brand new sofa bed delivered, from Peter Jones, with big, comfortable arms on which to rest my sharp middle class elbows.  This particular sofa bed is one of their most popular items, so the delivery men said, as they assembled it in my living room with practised ease.  Yet no blunt-elbowed lower class persons were denied sofa beds by my ruthless playing of the system, nor did I have to convert to Christianity.  Nor did the Leader of the Opposition need to defend my acquisitiveness, because nobody thinks I did anything wrong.  No fakery.  No fudge.

That is how education should also be delivered.

Went from here to here, where Shuggy says this:

And from Tim Worstall, unusually, something about education I think most teachers would agree with: we knew the ‘academic’ component of our post-grads in education was a waste of time, taught as we were by a bunch of people who could hack it neither as teachers nor academics, peddling out-dated theories that I would decline to describe as ‘liberal’. We all knew the only thing worthwhile in the whole damn year was the actual teaching practice. Now there’s some research that backs this up, apparently. Praise be.

I also enjoyed this first comment on Shuggy’s posting, from dearieme:

A friend of mine got one of her teaching practice assignments at a place she hated on principle: Eton. Loved it - won’t hear a word against the place.

My first cousin used to teach at Eton, having been a boy there himself.  I recall him saying to me, with great emphasis: “Eton is a very good school.” (This is now his house.)

Tuesday January 22 2008

Another Tuesday, another evening helping out at Kings Cross Supplementary.  I came away from this evening’s efforts very content.

One of the things that got me down about the previous school I helped (or tried to help) out at, which I used to call Paradise Primary (mostly because of the lavish physical surroundings), was that the longer it went on, the worse it got.  Basically, the children I was teaching gradually worked out that I had no power over them, and that they could do as they pleased.  At first, things went well, for as long as the fear of the unknown pertained, but gradually it became futile.  Plus, being on my own in the common area of the school, while the real teachers operated in their own classrooms behind closed doors, I never got a chance to discover what decent teaching looked like, or, perhaps more fundamentally, how much teacher stroppiness was regarded as okay, and how much was too much, which meant that I probably erred on the side of not enough.  Not enough, that is to say, to get any teaching done.

At Kings Cross Supplementary, I can feel myself becoming a better teacher.  But it’s not just me getting better, it’s the rules of the place.  All the children at Kings Cross Supplementary are there because their parents have chosen and paid for them to be there.  So, if a child refuses to do what we reasonably demand, assuming that it is reasonable, he will be in trouble at home as well as getting into a fight with us.  Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I get the feeling that, in this regime, I might one day become so good at teaching that I might even become the kind of teacher that a child might choose to be taught by, might actually want to be taught by.  What I am sure of is that I am already becoming better at being the kind of teacher that parents want their children to be taught by.  They want me to cajole, urge, intimidate, charm, frighten, coax, their basically defenceless progeny into becoming better educated.  And I’m getting better at that.

This evening, for instance, I did the same thing as I did the week before.  First hour: Small Boy.  Second hour: helping Mr Vora with his maths class.  Setting aside Mr Vora (which is disrespectful but it will keep this posting to a manageable length), I found myself doing better than usual with Small Boy.  I don’t think it was any one thing, more a whole range of things, working in combination with each other.  Including ...

The Butterfly Book.  Sorry to keep going on about this, but it really is very good.  Just about foolproof, in fact.  Just do what it says.  I do.  It works, at any rate on Small Boy.  I also followed, more than previously, Irina Tyk’s advice about not digressing from how it sounds to what it means.  See the end of paragraph two of this posting.  This meant we made speedier progress, and kept things simple and unconfusing.  In fact, Small Boy got really into it, and seemed to be quite enjoying himself.  Nothing like understanding everything and knowing all the answers to make you content.  Last week we went from Lesson One to Lesson Three.  This week: Four to Nine.

At Paradise Primary I was sent in to the school armed with an utterly defective and in some parts just plain wrong doctrine of how to teach reading and writing.  These Supplementary Schools, on the other hand, have a doctrine about how to teach reading and writing that seems wholly correct, and in which I have complete confidence.

I took my own advice (see my thoughts at the end of this posting) about being more of a confident man.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, or if not what you should be thinking.  If I can’t do Alpha Male body language and assertiveness to one six year old, then I really must be some kind of an idiot wimp.  Indeed.  I’m just saying, I was more Alpha Male this time than hitherto.  And this also seemed to work.  After all, Small Boy had to be there.  It was compulsion either way.  Was it straight take-it-for-granted compulsion or do-anything-you-want-except-what-you-actually-want-which-is-run-about compulsion, compulsion-with-apologies, and this time I tried straight compulsion.  He seemed happier, or at any rate no more unhappy.  (There’s at least an entire blog posting in that conundrum.)

The compulsion was tempered with praise.  I made Small Boy do what I wanted, but when he’d done it, I said well done.  All that I see and all that I hear and all that I read tells me that the human animal (unlike the dog animal) responds best to and learns best from praise rather than criticism and punishment.  Correct all errors in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way.  (That’s wrong.  It’s no big deal, but it is wrong.  Don’t worry, you’ll soon get it.) But, tell them what they did right with great enthusiasm and warmth.

In between bouts of demanding obedience, and geeing along with praise, I allowed short breaks, during which Small Boy could tell me anything he wanted to (today it was a discussion about the baleful effect of large class sizes at his regular school), and which I ended by resuming the lesson after what I considered to be a proper interval of time.

I daresay an informed observer with a video camera could have spotted several other things I did right, and several other things I’m still doing very wrong.  Which I trust I will learn about and work out in the weeks and months to come.

Two things strike me about this resumed blog, so far.  First, not many other people are reading it, as yet.  But second, the writing of it, and then the re-reading of it, is doing me a power of good.

Monday January 21 2008

I find this kind of thing fascinating:

SINGAPORE, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Singapore-listed education provider Raffles Education Corp (RLSE.SI: Quote, Profile, Research) said on Monday it plans to list part of its Chinese assets on the Hong Kong stock exchange. The firm said in a statement that it has appointed UBS AG (UBSN.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) as an adviser for the listing. The company did not give the total value of its Chinese assets or the amount it intends to raise through the listing.

Raffles Education has a market capitalisation of about $2.2 billion.

In its biggest investment in China to date, Raffles Education bought a university campus in Langfang City, Hebei province for 2 billion yuan ($276 million) in October last year.

In November last year, the company’s chief executive, Chew Hua Seng, told Reuters that Raffles Education will continue to buy educational institutes across Asia especially in China.

The company’s stock price was down 2.9 percent by 15:58 Singapore time (0358 GMT). (Reporting by Melanie Lee; Editing By Ovais Subhani)

The point is, this is business news, with share prices and company profiles attached.  Big Asian mega-education companies are going to start buying British state schools one of these decades, and the state will be glad to be rid of them.  That’s why it’ll be selling them.

Frank Chalk, yesterday:

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced that metal detectors will be used in some schools to try and prevent pupils bringing in knives.

FC has his doubts:

Let’s assume that it takes on average 30 seconds per child (by the time they’ve triggered the damn thing with pencil sharpeners, belt buckles, watches etc and had to go through again, then triggered it again, then refused to go through it again, stormed off and returned with their mother who will want to complain about radiation, rights or something...)


Here’s the BBC version.  Schools are allowed to have metal detectors, but the politicos want them to do this more.

I say politicos, rather than just the government, because there’s cross party consensus on this:

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said the installation of scanners in some schools was “long overdue”.

“The powers have existed for some time and we have been calling for this for some time. However, while there are hundreds of scanners there are thousands of schools.

“We hope that - for a change - this initiative actually makes it beyond the front page.”

So, if the politicos think you have a knife problem in your school but you don’t, or if you do have a knife problem but happen to think, for your own particular reasons, that a metal detection machine wouldn’t help, your life just got worse.

As always with stories about initiatives, there are really two stories, first about what the initiative is about, and second about the whole idea of initiatives, all initiatives.  (Note the new category.)

Tim Worstall writes about Teach First at the Adam Smith Institute Blog:

So we seem to have a situation where an absence of specific training in education produces better educators: or at the very least, ones that are no worse.

An excellent result I think all can agree: the policy implication is therefore clear, make teacher training a 5 or 6 week course, close the vast majority of the educating to educate system, save a great deal of money and possibly improve the education system, or at least leave it no worse.

Mark Wadsworth comments thus:

Having spent as many years in education as most people, it strikes me that teaching is largely an innate skill. Sure you need to understand the material, which is usually not that complicated, really. It’s getting the crowd on your side and motivating pupils that counts, skills which I doubt can be learned.

This I seriously doubt.  I certainly think that useful things about how to teach can be learned, if only by watching others do it in a way that you admire (currently my preferred method).

But what is surely true is that if the the choice is between very bad teacher training, of the sort that actually makes you worse than you would have been otherwise, and no teacher training, no teacher training wins.

Bishop Hill, to whom deep thanks because there is no way I would have spotted this myself, has this picture on his Blog today, and plans to watch what it advertises, and since this blog could do with a few more pictures, I hereby steal it:


And the Bishop comments thus:

If you’ve never heard of it, Summerhill is a school in Sussex which is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for not making its pupils attend lessons. In fact they don’t make the kids do anything. This would have been fine but for the fact that their exam results were rather above the national averages. One can imagine the horror with which this was greeted by the bureaucracy. The result of all this was that the schools inspectorate tried to have them closed down, a battle from which the school has only recently emerged the victor.

Worth a look, I would have thought.


Blogs don’t replace the Mainstream Media.  Well, not yet.  And maybe never.  But meanwhile, they do steer you through the media jungle by your own preferred path.

Sunday January 20 2008

Incoming from Alex Singleton, to whom thanks:

I read this blog posting by a young staffer at Cato and thought it might be of interest to you given your education blogging hat.

He explains how professional bodies have rigged the legal profession and made law degrees so like punishment that he decided he didn’t want to study law. The same, he says, applies to medicine.

He basically says that people who would have gone into law but can’t be bothered with all the hassle are now going out and being entrepreneurs. Which, to my mind, is a good thing.

This is another of those education as things to add to the list of all the things education might really be, instead of, you know, education.  Education as an obstacle course erected by the “learned” professions.

Saturday January 19 2008

Patrick Crozier was today kind enough to link back to this January 2006 Samizdata piece of mine, and whenever that happens, knowing that others may be reading it, I reread it myself.  It stands up pretty well.

I also looked at the comments, and found this very educationally relevant comment, concerning an enterprise of which I previously knew nothing.  Someone called “pommygranate” was responding to a point I had made in my piece about the speed with which people will respond to changed incentives.  (I think that if incentives truly do change, people respond very quickly indeed.)

I have spent the last three years working with a London charity that takes in violent but intelligent black boys and tries to turn them into decent human beings. Their results are staggering. My time there has given me an insight into the Welfare State and has convinced me of a number of indisputable facts

i) children respond rapidly to a change in their personal circumstances. If incentivised properly and disciplined fairly, they are capable of complete change.

ii) the older they get, the less the magnitude of change possible. By 14, attitudes are set for life.

iii) 95% of the boys we accept have no adult men in their lives. This is the single largest contributing factor to a slide into an anti-social life.

iv) people do not value what is for free. We charge the parents £2 a week for their boys to attend class. It is a nominal fee but a crucial part of the program.

apologies for the shameless plug but go to eyla.org.uk for those wanting to find out more (and helping out, especially if you are a successful black male)

The other day I found myself watching a TV nature show in which it was explained that apparently the same point, about whether they have adult males in their lives or not, applies also to juvenile male elephants.  Orphaned young male elephants were on the rampage, killing other animals for no obvious reason.  The biggest single improvement in their behaviour happened when adult male elephants were introduced into the herd.

One of the themes I hope to explore here from time to time is question of what kind of animals humans are, young humans in particular, and hence what kinds of teaching and influence work best with them.  We have long had horse whisperers in our midst, and there is now a dog whisperer doing very well for himself, and for dogs and their owners I hasten to add, on the telly.

How do human whisperers do things?  I suspect that the word “successful”, which occurs right at the end of pommygranate’s words, has a lot to do with it.  Not in the sense that the men working that human whisperer magic have to have a certain minimum income, but in the sense that they have to behave like they are someone, to have, as we say “something about them”.

This is an important question for me personally.  I am now trying to teach young boys, and I really want to know how to do this better than I do it now.

Friday January 18 2008

Over Christmas I told my TV hard disc to copy various TV shows, while I was away seeing family, and when I do that I usually leave a bit of time before and after.  That caused me to pick up random stuff I wasn’t expecting, and I’ve only just seen some footage I thus accidentally recorded of comedian Dara O’Briain, doing stand-up at the Hammersmith Apollo.


During his act, O’Briain likes to interact with members of the audience, and one of the people he conversed with was a boy taking a night off from studying for his A levels in German, History, Sociology and Music.  Said O’Briain:

Employers will be screaming for you.  “We’ve got a hole in our company the size of a man who knows German, Sociology, and History.  But can he play the guitar?” ... It’s a unique set of talents my friend, and there is one job out there waiting for you, in the Goethe Institute band.

O’Briain then turned serious, and said this:

Just so you know, by the way, from the rest of us here who’ve been through the whole school system and that, and have gone to the other side of the education and all the exams and all that, the stuff you’re learning day to day, all the subjects and all the quotes and all of that stuff, ... that stuff, when you get out into the real world and you’re looking for work and you’re meeting people, that stuff [heavy emphasis] ... is ... vital.

That got one of the biggest laughs of any I saw.  As did what immediately followed:

Frankly, hardly a day goes by that I don’t have to quote a theorem or mention a poem.  I was in a nightclub the other night and a woman came up and said “What’s the biggest of the Great Lakes?” and I went “Er, is it Lake Michigan?” and she said: “Close enough, I will go to bed with you.”


Thursday January 17 2008

Madsen Pirie takes a swipe at Common Error No. 9, which goes:

“It is wrong to allow bright children to go to special schools. This deprives the ordinary schools of their beneficial influence.”

Pirie concentrates on the immorality of such a policy:

The vicious notion is that children, whether bright or not, should be regarded as the instruments of the ends of others, instead of ends in themselves.

However, he leaves unscathed the implied claim that such a policy actually would help unbright children.  Presumably he doesn’t care.  I certainly don’t, except insofar as the idea makes a mildly interesting blog posting.  I oppose this policy no matter how much good it might bestow upon the unbright, on the grounds that such compulsion is just plain wrong, and that compulsion in all other areas of life (definitely including educational life) does miles more harm than good, so why should this policy, even if some children might benefit from it, be any different?

If you support such a policy, but if your true purpose is to achieve more equality of outcome by making the bright less bright, by dumbing down the bright rather than raising up the unbright, then you wouldn’t care if such a policy really did make the unbright any brighter either, any more than I do.  You’d still favour compelling the bright to mix with the unbright, just as I would still oppose it.

But, if you think that such a policy is justified, provided it actually achieves the desired effect of making the unbright brighter, you would want to know if it actually does have this effect.  So, does it?  I don’t know for sure but I very much doubt it.  But then, I would, wouldn’t I?

Peter Hoskin writes about the educational debate sparked by the Charity Commission, who have urged that private schools should be, as Hoskin puts it in his title, “asked” to do more for the “public benefit”.

Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington and a Tony Blair biographer, has argued that private schools are creating educational apartheid.

My small experience of private education says entirely the opposite.  From where I see things, the private sector is carving huge, if not always reported, chunks out of the educational task that was earlier performed by state schools, state schools many which themselves derived their effectiveness and momentum from the time when all schools were almost entirely private.  Nationalisation can take a long time to work its un-magic, but it gets there, and to fill the ever more numerous gaps left by state education now, the private sector, if by that you mean all the things that free people do with their own money and their own time, is not stuck in a ghetto, but is advancing out of it in all kinds of directions.  Educational apartheid would only happen if all this was now crushed to death.

Take this Butterfly Book that I’ve been banging on about here.  The whole point of this mighty volume is that only a very semi-effective teacher like me, or like millions of parents, can make highly effective use of it.  Parents can buy it, and use it.  (And they are.  And teachers and state schools aren’t.) That’s the private sector in action.

Says Hoskin:

The question of how much is owed – in the name of equality – by private institutions to public bodies is one that cuts across a number of policy areas.  Should private hospitals lend equipment and expertise to NHS centres?  Should private companies be obliged to give jobs to the unemployed?  The boundaries need to be established, and this task should become one of the defining features of the current Parliament.

Boundaries be damned.  This is a fight to the death, not a negotiation.  The enemy says: everything is owed.  I say: nothing is owed.  The task in hand is not to contrive a truce between freedom and all its pleasures and benefits, and tyranny and all its woes and idiocies, but for the former utterly to overwhelm the latter.

Wednesday January 16 2008

Trawling through the educational “news” is to immerse oneself in an endless litany of disappointed hopes and missed targets.  So instead of writing about any of that today, I will write about another little detail that Irina Tyk mentioned in the talk she gave on Saturday.

It was to do with blending.  When you start teaching reading with the Butterfly Book, you don’t start with the names of the letters, but with the sounds they make.  (Names come later.) And right away, in lesson one, you are teaching blending.  You get a few sounds, the sounds made by a, n and t, and you start making little words out of them.  Ta.  At.  Na.  An.  Tan.  Ant.  Nan.  Tat.  Blending begins at once.  And no, I don’t know what “na” is either.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is making the right noise.  What “ant” means is also digression.  Do not interrupt the teaching of reading with a lesson about insects, or asking whether the kid knows what an ant is.  (I used to do this.  Now, I will stop.)

Anyway, what Irina Tyk said was that what you must not do when teaching blending is assemble a number of separate syllables, and then try to put them together.  So, if the task is to get the child to read “together”, what you do not do is break together up into “to”, “geth” and “er”, and then try to bolt all that ... together.  Blending is done from left to right.  If you do need to soften the complexity of it, then cover up “gether” behind a bit of card, leaving only “to” visible.  Then slide your card rightwards, and leave “togeth” visible.  Then slide it again, revealing all of “together”.  You should not cover up “togeth” in order to show that the end goes “er”.

Interesting.  Well, I think so.  In general, Irina Tyk gave me a lot of confidence that she knows exactly how to teach people to read, with all extraneous stuff stripped out of the process.  So if on some particular matter I don’t get why she says whatever she says, I am inclined to take her word for it.

Tuesday January 15 2008

At the Supplementary School I now teach at one evening a week, I have mostly been doing one-to-one teaching.  But last Saturday, at that training session I attended, I got a chance to talk with the two main teachers at my school, without there being children present to whom they needed to attend.  And it turned out that they were a bit bothered about me doing only one-to-one teaching, because this has the effect of individual children being lead off in different directions and then maybe losing touch with the flock, so to speak.  With one Small Boy in particular, one-to-one is best, because he is way behind the rest, but my colleagues feel that if a child can make reasonable sense of what’s being taught in the big class, that’s where the child ought to be.  And my best way of helping would be to be a classroom assistant.  Fine by me.  I just want to assist and to learn.

So, this evening, back for the new year, I spent the first half of the evening with Small Boy, who does need special attention, and I duly did my best.  But, I spent the second half assisting Mr Vora with his maths class.  I helped individual children either because they were struggling or because they were not struggling and needed further related tasks to keep them usefully occupied.  And generally, I tried to make myself useful.  I’m no great shakes as a maths teacher, but maths, at the level being taught here, I can do.

Off on my own, my basic problems have been: what do they want me to do?  And: how well am I doing it?  By being Mr Vora’s classroom assistant, I got to see him in action, and he got to see me in action.  I could see what he was trying to teach, and could help with that.  He got to see me at work, and could tell me afterwards what was most helpful.  He seemed content.

I also got a clearer idea than hitherto of what I need to be teaching Small Boy.

The usual arguments about how to organise teaching rather assume that the only question is: what teaches the pupils best?  But there is another question worth asking: what teaches the teachers best?

Monday January 14 2008

I missed it last week, but here is a delayed link to Bishop Hill, writing about how someone called Judith Gillespie wants more tabs kept on people who withdraw their children from school, and about how the BBC misreported the story.

If all they wanted to do to Home Ed was create a register, then that would not be such a worry.  But many people want it stopped altogether, which makes the register very worrying indeed, and something to be opposed vigorously.

This story was the headline story on page one of The Times when I spied it when walking about this afternoon:

Teachers are to be banned from encouraging their pupils to study A levels rather than the Government’s controversial new vocational diploma qualifications under legislation that is going through Parliament.

This was just the kind of thing I had in mind when I said, in the previous posting but one, that Becta is not that bad.  This is that bad.


The current education and skills bill is a classic; and no, that is not a compliment. Its centrepiece is a proposed new ‘duty’ on young people to stay in education and training until they are 18. This was dreamed up by Alan Johnson, the previous education secretary, on a flying visit to Canada and is now being hastily justified after the event with a mass of selective and partial evidence.

In reality the measure will be at best a monumental waste of money. At worst, and more probably, it will destroy the youth labour market and criminalise some of our most disadvantaged young people, further damaging their future life chances.

Ed Balls, who inherited the measure, has gone on the offensive, suggesting that anyone against the bill is against education. I don’t suppose anyone is against education in the word’s original sense, as a process of learning and personal development. But I am certainly against corralling 16 and 17 into classrooms and workshops against their will, to take courses which are of no value to their future.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King’s College London, it says at the end of this piece, and her recently published report for Policy Exchance is entitled Diminished Returns: How Raising the Leaving Age to 18 Will Harm Young People and the Economy.

I wonder what Alison Wolf thinks about lowering the school leaving age.  Personally I see little point in coralling 13, 14 and 15 (to follow the odd grammar above) in classrooms and workshops against their will.  I favour the immediate lowering of the age beyond which education would cease to be compulsory to the beginning of the teens, and once everyone had got used to that, I’d keep on lowering it until there was nothing left to lower.

And I’m not against education either.

I like to Vista bash everywhere else I write, but I wasn’t expecting to be doing it here.  But read this:

A year of lobbying from the men in black has failed to move the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) away from its early decision to kick Microsoft Vista and Office 2007 out of schools.

The agency kicked up a right stink when it said, in its interim report, that schools should not touch Vista of [or? - BM] Office 2007 with with a barge poll.

Now in the agency’s final report, which can be found here, it seems that Becta has decided to stick to its guns.

Becta says that deploying Vista in current setups isn’t worth the cash. Only 22 per cent of school PCs in the UK are capable of running Vista “effectively.” This is despite the fact that 66 per cent of machines fall under the under Microsoft’s definition of “Vista capable.”

Becta claims that it will cost each primary school £125 to upgrade a PC and £75 for secondary schools. Costs will therefore run to £175 million to upgrade schools in England and Wales and Becta said that there was no evidence to support the argument that the costs of upgrading to Vista in educational establishments would be offset by appropriate benefits.

Provide it sticks to making recommendations and refrains from giving orders, setting targets, etc., then BECTA (which I’d never heard of until now) actually sounds like a moderately intelligent way to waste public money, compared to a lot of the government’s educational activities.

As for Vista, it seems uniquely ill-suited to being used effectively by young people, especially very young ones.  It is apparently horribly large, and slow, and it won’t work on the kind of small, cheap, mobile computers that are now being announced, and which a lot of families will surely soon be getting for their kids.

Sunday January 13 2008

From the Guardian on Friday:

A Cambridge University admissions tutor has admitted he checks up on students applying to his college by browsing their Facebook profiles. Dr Richard Barnes, senior tutor at Emmanuel College, confessed in the college magazine.

Confessed?  Why is this such a terrible thing to do?  But, I don’t get Facebook, and may well be missing something here, in fact missing a lot.  The general opinion, at any rate as reported by the Guardian, is that Barnes has let the side down badly.

The children of Lingfield and Dormansland have been told that they can no longer go to Oxted School, but must instead attend Oakwood.  An eight minute train ride will be replaced by one in to Clapham Junction, and then out again, lasting over an hour.

“The council says that Oakwood is nearer, but that’s as the crow flies. There are no transport links to it. It makes no sense to trim the catchment in the south when children in the north have many more schools to choose from.

“Parents feel cheated. In the early 1970s, when there were discussions about building a new school for village children, the decision was taken instead to invest the £250,000, worth about £2.5 million today, in Oxted School. Parents were told then to regard Oxted as their community school. And we did.”

Which just goes to show that local councils are just as capable of being idiotic as central governments.  I suppose if you are a Surrey councillor, you can’t imagine anyone not having a car.

The answer to this kind of nonsense, and much other nonsense besides, is to allow pupils and schools to choose each other.

Saturday January 12 2008

Today, as flagged up yesterday here, I attended the Supplementary Schools training day.  There were several little talks by various teachers, all helpful, and one big one to start with, by Irina Tyk, the writer of the Butterfly Book (see below).  She said many interesting and helpful things.  I believe that I am now significantly better at teaching reading than I was.

To me, the most interesting thing she said concerned the matter of abstract knowledge.  The trend in education during recent decades has been, she said, to relate all learning to already existing feelings and sensory experiences of children.  If new abstract knowledge is being presented, it is done so by connecting it to sensory experience, like colours, feelings, shapes that they already know, gestures they can do.  This is a mistake, she said.  Learning to read means mastering the connections between abstract symbols and sounds.  Do not, she said, climbing onto what was clearly one of her hobby horses, confuse the letter S with a snake, as a lot of teachers apparently like to do.  (Can snakes be hobby horses?  Yes they can.) Doing that only confuses, by introducing N, A, K and E, with all the irrelevant and confusing thoughts those notions might provoke.  Keep it clear, and accurate, and stripped of gossip, trivia and irrelevance.  S says sssss.  Don’t “finally” (a favourite word of hers) say that.  Say that straight away.

At the end, she also said very interesting things about long words, like “grandiloquent”, and “phantasmagorical”, which she said quite small children could quite easily learn to spell out, even if they don’t know what such words mean and won’t for some time.

Friday January 11 2008

Tomorrow I will be attending a get-together-stroke-training-course for all the teachers and teaching assistants involved in these Supplementary Schools.  Among those addressing us and improving us will be Irina Tyk, the head teacher who wrote the Butterfly Book.  Earlier this week an email went round saying: Do you have a copy of the Butterfly Book?  This was because, last month, the Daily Mail gave it a write up, and ever since then demand has been ferocious, and all copies were needed for pushy parents to buy.

I do have a copy, and will be bringing it with me tomorrow:


My copy has a blander cover that the one you get to if you follow the link above.  That version has an elaborate picture of a butterfly on the front.  But the bland cover is more appropriate, I think, because the content is similarly lacking in extraneous illustration.

I suspect that the Butterfly Book illustrates one of my Deep Educational Prejudices, which is that commentators on education are divided between those who were confused at school and those who were bored.  Tyk was definitely in the confused camp, if this prejudice is correct.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll get to ask her.

In the first version of this posting my photos made the Butterfly Book look as if it was printed on gray paper.  I have now corrected this, with some photoshopping.

Thursday January 10 2008

I saw this coming, but not so soon:

Every parent of a secondary school pupil will have online access to real-time data on their child’s behaviour by 2010 under new targets set today by schools minister Jim Knight.

What strikes me about announcements like these is that all these initiatives might make sense, if they were being done by individual schools in response to their individual problems, and then copied by other schools, in their own time, if the first scheme was successful.  But, when the government decides that every school in its grip must do whatever it is, and starts setting national targets and announcing deadlines, that’s a different pile of sludge entirely.

For instance, imagine if the scheme I commented on yesterday, about teaching etiquette, had been an announcement by the government rather than by one single college.  Imagine a national plan to teach allteenagers better table manners.  It hardly bears thinking about.

A national plan to impose total classroom surveillance is similarly misguided.  You can imagine this maybe working if a single school tried it, and worked out whether it truly is as scary as it might sound to some parents and seem to some children, and hence as much resented as it might be.  The school could work out the dos and don’ts of it all, by trial and error, and quietly drop the whole idea if they couldn’t make it work well.  But politicians, eager to trumpet success, success that is badly measured and before it has really happened, impatient to roll it out nationally before the next General Election, even if lots of teachers think it stinks and has zero to contribute to their particular school and is in fact only asking for trouble ... it’s a horror story waiting to happen.  This is pretty much my prejudice about any national “initiative”.

Teachers’ groups have insisted that the plan must not add to their members’ workload, while the education procurement agency BECTA recently released research pointing out that many struggle to use existing IT. The National Union of Teachers today called for an independent assessment of the impact of real-time reporting technology in schools.

In other words: bleah!!  I sympathise.

Ted Tulley tells us of 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do, and Donald Clark lists them for those who don’t care for videos: play with fire, own a pocket knife, throw a spear, deconstruct appliances, drive a car.  Thank you Bishop Hill, where you can read the list and watch the video.

David Thompson links to an article by Stefan Theil entitled Europe’s Philosophy of Failure about the ideological content of education in ... well, this quote tells you:

Millions of children are being raised on prejudice and disinformation. Educated in schools that teach a skewed ideology, they are exposed to a dogma that runs counter to core beliefs shared by many other Western countries. They study from textbooks filled with a doctrine of dissent, which they learn to recite as they prepare to attend many of the better universities in the world. Extracting these children from the jaws of bias could mean the difference between world prosperity and menacing global rifts. And doing so will not be easy. But not because these children are found in the madrasas of Pakistan or the state-controlled schools of Saudi Arabia. They are not. Rather, they live in two of the world’s great democracies - France and Germany.

That’s how the piece starts.  Here is another interesting paragraph:

Attitudes and mind-sets, it is increasingly being shown, are closely related to a country’s economic performance. Edmund Phelps, a Columbia University economist and Nobel laureate, contends that attitudes toward markets, work, and risk-taking are significantly more powerful in explaining the variation in countries’ actual economic performance than the traditional factors upon which economists focus, including social spending, tax rates, and labor-market regulation. The connection between capitalism and culture, once famously described by Max Weber, also helps explain continental Europe’s poor record in entrepreneurship and innovation. A study by the Massachusetts-based Monitor Group, the Entrepreneurship Benchmarking Index, looks at nine countries and finds a powerful correlation between attitudes about economics and actual corporate performance. The researchers find that attitudes explain 40 percent of the variation in start-up and company growth rates - by far the strongest correlation of any of the 31 indicators they tested. If countries such as France and Germany hope to boost entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic dynamism - as their leaders claim they do - the most effective way to make that happen may be to use education to boost the cultural legitimacy of going into business.

Trouble is, where will they find the teachers to do that, if they’ve all been brainwashed to hate capitalism?

The link between education and economic development is widely accepted, but much depends on what kind of education it is.

Wednesday January 09 2008

From the BBC today:

Pupils are being taught which cutlery to use and whether to remove their jackets at dinner at an independent school in Brighton.

Brighton College introduced the classes in etiquette after a survey of company directors said graduates displayed impoliteness and poor table manners.

Headmaster Richard Cairns said exams were “only part” of preparation for adult life.

Strictly speaking that’s all about etiquette rather that manners, but the two things overlap, rather as, on the grandest educational scale, “training” and “education” do.  Teach the particulars, and while doing that, smuggle in and draw out the underlying principles.

The survey last month by the Institute of Directors said a quarter of company directors believed recent graduates showed impoliteness and poor table manners which could project an unprofessional image.

There you go.  Impoliteness.

In my tiny career as a part-time teacher I have found myself also trying to teach Ps and Qs of the politeness sort as well as of the merely alphabetical.

With younger children, I find that the key skill they need at least to know about is simply paying attention.  “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” is something you hear a lot in many classrooms, often – alas – in a very impolite tone.  The way I sometimes phrase it is: “Please at least pretend to pay attention”.  Because a lot of good behaviour does start as pretence, projecting the wrong “image” as the quote above says, just looking as if you are listening, just going through the correct motions.  (This is why etiquette elides into manners.) Later you get into the part, as the actors say.  Pay attention, or look like you’re paying attention, and the person you’re talking too won’t get angry, and is more likely to do what you want.  I try to sell good manners by explaining what they accomplish, rather than merely demand them.

Sometimes I like to demonstrate what if feels like not to be listened to by talking to them while looking away.  “Not so nice, is it?” Close to the heart of good manners is being able to see things, and in particular yourself, from the other person’s point of view.

Another particular thing I find myself trying to teach children is hellos and goodbyes.  Hand shake, eye contact.  Young boys like to get in on the lesson by teaching me their much more complicated hand-shakes, which involve things like high fives, and they then take great pleasure in doing them when we meet again, correcting me until I get it right.  Basically, my lesson about hellos and goodbyes is: do this.  It helps.  The people you deal with will feel less taken for granted.

Tuesday January 08 2008

Today I bought the latest issue of Gramophone, and the Letter of the month for this month (February), from Bill Proctor of Chiselhurst, Kent, reads as follows:

You quoted a piece in The Times about getting children to practise, however reluctantly, as “an important part of the educational process” (Taking Note, December, page 17).  The cello seems to be an instrument particularly designed to put small children off: probably because of its size and lack of dignity.  I suffered myself as a child.  My eight-year-old son suffered even more: cello practice on Sunday evenings was a nightmare for all concerned and even though he graduated to the local schools’ string orchestra he was delirious when able to give it up at secondary age. Ten years later, a very streetwise young man taught himself jazz guitar from scratch and within six months was playing more than passable Hendrix riffs.  At 23, he is now progressing with Bach, Haydn and Scarlatti at the keyboard, while perfecting his technique on drums. He is quite clear of the reasons for his new facility: playing an instrument as a child, particularly in an ensemble, taught him to read the line, to feel the beat and to relate to other players - the key requirements for any musician.

Even if my son does not progress to professional status, he has been won over as both performer and listener and his whole life has been enormously enhanced as a result. Will someone in the government wake up to the need restore instrumental and vocal tuition to the proud place which it once held in the elementary school system?  It would involve quite a lot of our money, but it would produce a substantial number of more fulfilled and satisfied future citizens.

This is as deeply felt a presentation of the no-pain-no-gain theory of education as you could hope to read.  I dislike educational compulsion of all kinds, but there is no question that it can often compel people to become interested in things that they would otherwise ignore.

So, I agree that teaching music even to those reluctant to learn it might indeed “produce a substantial number of more fulfilled and satisfied future citizens”.  But what else might it produce?  What about those who are put off music by being forced to do it?

I just cannot accept that for people to aspire to heaven, they must first be put through hell.

Monday January 07 2008

I thank Jackie D not only for this (and see also this), but also for an email to me entitled “saw this and thought of you – best schools and funding”.  The text of JD’s email was simply this link.  Thanks JD, not only for the link to this posting, but for alerting me to the blog in general, which is now added to my tiny blogroll here.  I think I may at last have found may way into the edublogosphere, because this guy is specifically interested in how blogging can help teachers to teach better, in among, I’m sure, lots of other stuff.

My first reaction to that particular posting was mostly positive, but also a bit critical.  Throwing money at education is indeed not guaranteed to do any good, but saying that teachers should be good and do good work is kind of obvious. Other things being equal, better teachers teaching better can’t hurt.  My hunch, however, is that good teachers are more a symptom of a satisfactory state of affairs, which is satisfactory for other reasons, than an independent variable that is easily altered.

Sunday January 06 2008

The headline reads: Business of education catches on with India Inc:

The education sector in India as the concept of ‘business of education’ catches on with India Inc. Considered a ‘social responsibility’ all these years till now and plagued by insufficient infrastructure, the Indian education sector has huge room for improvement.

Increasingly, there are companies on the horizon providing e-learning services, tutoring for kids, coaching institutes expanding their ambit to provide mainstream education, setting up schools, entering the B-school segment et al.

Companies like Educomp, NIIT, Tutorvista, Zee Integrated Learning System, Career Launcher, Extramarks, an online tutoring portal for kids, Aptech, Time, IMS, skill enhancement company Abacus Learning are all party to this. Another highlight of the change is the public-private partnership model on which much of the growth of this sector is pinned on.

It’s the kind of transition that’s sweeping the Indian education system. Gaja Capital’s $8.25 million investment in Career launcher, Helix Investments pumping in $12 or Mahesh Tutorial and SAIF Partners investing $10 in an English training Academy Veta, are all indications to this. Instances like these are plenty.

Once can only imagine the profound effect all this has on the attitude of Indians towards doing business, and towards all the other benefits that doing business creates.

If only we in Britain had a government that didn’t have billions to throw at education, this would leave the field clear for the private sector.  Let’s hope that these Indian education businesses eventually all establish branches here.

Saturday January 05 2008

Snapped today, as I wandered about London SW1:


It’s above this.

Michael Gove, the Conservative opposition spokesman on education, is getting acres of space in the newspapers these days.  It seems to have been decided by whoever decides these things that he is to be the next Education Minister.  He gets to say his thing:


Michael Gove, the Tory shadow schools secretary, said: “It is still the case that performance in the core subjects is not improving at anything like the pace it should be. If you look at international comparisons, England is still lagging far behind.”

This week, ministers admitted that schools were failing to narrow the gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds - particularly among white teenagers. Those eligible for free school meals lag far behind their classmates, with 28 percentage points fewer gaining five good GCSEs.

And then the government reacts with its usual bromides about how things are getting better, but that the government is making things even better than that.

Gove (that’s him on the right) looks like the school swot, doesn’t he?

Friday January 04 2008

I have long been a fan of classical violinist Pinchas Zukerman, ever since the days of his regular collaborations with the young Barenboim and the alas eternally young Jacqueline du Pré.  He remains a formidable and formidably busy musician, who now also teaches a lot.  Nevertheless, when glancing through this Zukerman bio, linked to recently by Jessica Duchen, I didn’t expect to encounter this:

In addition to his position with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Mr. Zukerman chairs the Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music. To maintain close relationships with his students while fulfilling the travel demands of his concert engagements, Mr. Zukerman has pioneered the use of distance-learning technology in the arts. Through the use of the school’s videoconferencing system, his students are able to receive regular string instruction.

imageHere is the best link I was able quickly to find concerning how Zukerman does this.  Interestingly, he was already deep into video-conference for music teaching over a decade ago

I found the picture I have used here, of Zukerman distance teaching in 2002, by scrolling down here.  (He’s the one on the telly.)

See also this, by another violinist who more recently tried doing the same thing, and was very enthusiastic about it.

Thursday January 03 2008

Number 9 of Amit Varma’s Wishlist for India in 2008:

Fund schooling, not schools. Our education system has failed because parents have no choice.  Two things can change this. One: We should allow private schools to open and run without any conditions at all. Two: Instead of funding schools, we should give school vouchers to parents, empowering them with the power to choose whichever school they want for their kids.

Follow the link to read Varma’s argument in more detail.

A surprising but true fact about the early life of England’s triumphant rugby union coach whose team won the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final is that his first sporting love was not rugby at all, but soccer.  But his father had other ideas and sent him to the Royal Navy training college, HMS Conway, where soccer was ignored and rugby insisted upon.  Here, from his book Winning! (pages 22-24 of my paperback edition), is Woodward’s description of this amazing episode:

imageTo most, HMS Conway was a great school. But to this day my school days there remain the darkest days of my life.  Ask any Conway old boy and he’ll probably tell you of his many fond memories of the place.  I’d say it could have been a good school, if only they had allowed me to play football.  Without football, it was like a prison, my very own Alcatraz.

The school was located on the island of Anglesey in North Wales in those days, about four hours’ drive from our home in Yorkshire.  But it may just as well have been on the moon, it was so removed from what I knew and loved.  I’ll always remember the name of the local village, the longest in Wales: Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, called Llanfair (pronounced Clanfare) for short, is itself an abbreviation!  The full name runs to fifty-eight letters.

‘Dad, please let me come home. They don’t play football here.’ I pleaded with him by telephone after my first day.  ‘They don’t even like football here.  If I’m seen with a football the headmaster will go crazy and the older boys will just beat me up.  All they’re into is rugby.’ I was vaguely familiar with rugby, having seen an international match on TV when there was nothing else on.  Watching it on TV, it seemed a daft game with rules that were hard to follow.

‘Sometimes you’ve just got to get on with it, Clive.  It’s character-building,’ was all he would allow.

Get on with it then?  Right.  So I did just that.  At breakfast the next morning I filled my pockets and did a runner!  It took me all day, but I walked and hitchhiked my way right across the country.  I was a thirteen-year-old on a mission to go back and play football.

My parents were waiting for me at the door when I arrived home.  My father grabbed his coat in one hand and my arm in the other.  He marched me out to the car and drove me right back the way I had come.  I was seeing a side to my father I just did not know was there.

‘Good job you were not Geoff Hurst’s father or the bloody World Cup would be in Munich!’

Silence.  Hardly a word was said the whole trip.

A few days later, I ran away again.  This time, instead of driving me back, they put me on a train at York back to the nearest town to the school.  Bangor, and especially that railway station, quickly became my least favourite place in the world.  Still is.  A week after that, I made a third break for it.  Sooner or later my father would get the message: I was not going to accept this.  I was coming home, and I was going to play football.

Unfortunately, it was I who got the message in the end – literally, in the form of a three-foot heavy marine rope with thick knots as hard as steel, not so fondly known as ‘the teaser’ by the other young cadets who were on the receiving end of it.  HMS Conway was a tough school and discipline was handed down by the senior cadets.  It was embarrassing to the school that I had run away once, let alone three times. The senior cadet captain had copped an earful from our headmaster, Mr Basil Lord, and he wasn’t shy about passing it on.  Corporal punishment handed out by eighteen-year-olds was no fun, but worse still this lot had never heard of Bobby Moore!  I was trouble, there were consequences, and I didn’t like the attention I was getting, nor did my body.  As much as I had a point to prove, survival was first and foremost.

Still, I made one more attempt.  My maths teacher, Mr Goodey, was my last chance.  He taught only one subject and so didn’t live at the school like the majority of the teachers.  Coincidentally, he also coached schoolboy football in nearby Bangor.  We’d had a bit of a kick about one afternoon and he was amazed at what I could do with a football.  He was so impressed that he even offered to pick me up and drop me off to training so that I could play with his club side.

I’ll never forget the look on Mr Lord’s face when I knocked on his study door that night, asking for one more chance at football.  I explained how Mr Goodey had offered to handle everything.

‘How many times do I have to tell you. Woodward ...’ His steely expression of muted rage is etched into my mind.  ‘If you do not stop all this nonsense I will take the teaser to you as well.’

It was then that I realised I wasn’t going to beat this.  If I wanted to survive, I had to play by their rules.

Wednesday January 02 2008

Incoming from Tom Burroughes, a friend from way back who now works for The Business:

Brian, as I mentioned at Perry’s, I’d keep an eye out for interesting material on education blogs. You are quite right, there seems to be a dearth of blogs written by teachers and other education professionals in Britain, for whatever reasons.  ...

I hadn’t actually put here that education blogging in the UK seems to be rather thin on the ground (although that has been my impression) because I am a very poor internet searcher.  It could just have been my impression.  But it is telling that somebody younger and more internet savvy than me also says this.

If this is true, then why?  I have a few guesses to offer.

Teachers in particular are too busy, and in spare time too tired, and not wanting to do anything too much like work in time off from work.

Concerns about confidentiality of the children.  My guess is that this is of more concern in the UK than in the USA, and that this is partly a cultural thing.  Americans do seem extremely eager to volunteer details about their families to the internet, and be less bothered about who exactly might be reading it. 

Quite aside from the Bad People thing, there is the matter of how children will feel, at the time, and later.  Will children welcome things about what they did when they were six being universally known about a decade or two decades later?  Most adults surey feel that children should not be “held” to what they said and did when young.  Such considerations must inhibit blogging of a certain kind, that is to say, of a kind that many adults do about each other.  (The trick, I would say, is to blog about education in some other way.  This is what I am attempting.)

And here’s a longer shot, related to the confidentiality thing: thinking that autobiography is obnoxious and egotistical.  Clearly you are entitled to blog about your own educational experiences, as, e.g., I note someone doing in my previous posting.  I even have a special category here – “educational memories” – to draw attention to such things, which I often find fascinating (e-mailers and commenters here please note).  But I suspect that the English in particular feel that autobiography is rather arrogant and pushy.

To change the subject of this somewhat, I don’t think that autobiography is necessarily at all arrogant.  The arrogant thing is to generalise too freely from your particular circumstances, to confuse the problems of your education with the problems of education.  A lot of educational commentary, including I am sure a lot of mine, is not so much about improving education in general as in retrospectively rescuing and correcting one’s own education.  The cure for such confusion is to come clean about the “I” stuff in how you are thinking.  If what you are really saying, to yourself, is that “when I was taught maths it was a horror story”, then put that, rather than “maths teaching is a horror story” for everybody.  The second claim is surely far more immodest and egotistical, because it embodies an inability to distinguish between your experiences and those of other people.

Or, as I always used to tell my Libertarian Alliance writers, when I was nagging them to write and nagging them about how and what to write: write what you know about.  (Or, if you are a blogger, link to those who do, or who seem to.)

Gratitude to Alice Bachini-Smith who comments on this with a link to this.


Anyway, to the point of this post. Mr Redden met us for the first time, and it was likely to have been more daunting for him than for us. And to break the ice for the first class of the first day, he asked a number of us what we did during the Christmas break. When it came to my turn, I told him I played games with the family, lazed a lot. And read comics. Lots of comics. Every day.

He went ballistic, and was more than just scathing about my reading habits. Made a big deal about how reading comics was a treasonable offence, how it spoilt a person’s grasp and command of the language and corrupted his writing ability. I was young enough to feel ashamed; red-faced, tears in my eyes, hot-flushed, that sort of thing. Still standing up, hoping the ground would open up and eat me alive. You know that feeling? Happened to me a lot when I was young, probably built character or something like that.

A few minutes later Mr Redden was done with the icebreaker Part 1, and went on to Part 2. Analysing his portfolio, looking at what he “knew” about the children in his care. Looks like we have a fine soccer team, can do better on the cricket, and so on. And then he said something like “I’m particularly delighted to know that we have at least one serious creative writer in the class, someone who won the school short story medal while still in Class 7, unheard of. Well done. Who is it?”

It was my turn to stand up, and yes, I was gracious in my victory. ...

It’s a quite long post with copious comic book illustrations, one of which I have copied and cropped in a way that makes sense to and fun for me, about how he grew up in a household that loved reading.

I clicked on his education category, and found, in particular, this.

I will also, definitely, be reading this, from March 2006, and following the links in it.  Who says blog postings are here to today and gone tomorrow?  It takes very little tooking to find them here tomorrow.

Tuesday January 01 2008

When you consider what a huge contribution to the reading habit Harry Potter and his creator J. K. Rowling have made, this is actually quite important news, educationally speaking:


Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has strongly hinted for the first time that she could write an eighth book in the series.

And it’s not just the money talking.

One of her biggest fans - her 14-year-old daughter Jessica - has already put pressure on her to revisit the character.

And her younger children - David, four, and Mackenzie, two - are likely to join the clamour for another novel as they discover the Potter books.

However, if an eighth novel were to be written, Rowling concedes it is unlikely that Harry would be the central character.

I am way too old to have actually caught Pottermania, but not so long ago I queued outside a big London bookshop with Goddaughter 2 for the latest one.  At midnight.  Pandemonium.

Check out, if you are inclined, Tim Ferriss writing about How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.  It turns out that what he means by “learn” is learn whether he can learn it fluently in three months, or not:

If you’re a native Japanese speaker, respectively handicapped with a bit more than 20 phonemes in your language, some languages will seem near impossible. Picking a compatible language with similar sounds and word construction (like Spanish) instead of one with a buffet of new sounds you cannot distinguish (like Chinese) could make the difference between having meaningful conversations in 3 months instead of 3 years.

So this posting is actually most useful if you are in the somewhat unusual position of wanting to learn a foreign language, but not any particular foreign language.  It will help you to choose one that you can learn quickly.

This posting was recently linked to by Alan Little, the latter link to the blog as a whole being because there are later postings after the first one, with more to come.  AL is using the system to check out Russian.  Why?  And why Russian?

Since Step One of one of the more common methods – fall in love with, and subsequently marry, a native speaker of the language – doesn’t seem to have worked out for me, language-wise, I thought I’d give some of Tim’s hints a try.

My problem with languages has never been the various sounds.  These I can do.  It’s remembering all the words that I find impossible.  When in France, for instance, I have to suppress my excellent French accent, because it makes me sound like I know French.  But I don’t.  I merely know how to read it aloud.

So, any tips for juicing up my vocabulary?  I won’t follow them because I am insufficiently motivated, but I’d be interested to know what I ought to be doing if I were motivated, as might others.

By the way, Happy New Year everybody.