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Monday March 31 2008

"Are schools being inspected to death?” I saw that title on the right, while reading this implausible piece, and thought, hm, another piece about too many inspections and not much improvement.  Worth a look.  I never expected it to be about an actual death:


The death of Irene Hogg was, in the normal run of things, a very local tragedy. The popular and apparently devoted head teacher of a small rural primary school was found dead in a remote area, in an apparent act of suicide. The shock resonated within the families of her 81 pupils; flowers were left at the school and her local authority chief spoke of losing one of his most experienced and valuable staff. “The word ‘love’ keeps coming though,” he said. “She was so highly regarded.”

More condolences here.

And there, frankly, the story would usually have ended. The passing of a 54-year-old unmarried woman - a dedicated professional who lived for her job and a round of golf at the weekend - could easily be put down at the door of secret sadness, hidden depression: the myriad private disappointments and inner conflicts that can overcome people at a certain point in their lives. Very sad, of course, but none of our business, and of no larger significance.

But the ripples from Irene Hogg’s death, which would ordinarily have stopped at the borders of her community, have spread. Because in the week preceding her death, two school inspectors came to visit for five days. The head had spent weeks beforehand in preparation, ensuring the school, which she had run for ten years, was at its best. It seems her best was not enough. At the end of their visit, the inspectors told her verbally of their criticisms. No one knows officially what they are, for the report on the school, in the Scottish Borders, will not be published until June.

I wouldn’t like to be writing that report now.

A friend, however, has claimed that the criticisms were “silly”. They are believed to include that a wooded area at the back of the school was not used (when locals knew it was contaminated by dog dirt); and that Ms Hogg was to be reported to the council for not filling in a complaint form. Ms Hogg was apparently angered and “very disillusioned” by what was said to her, and she failed to reappear after the Easter weekend. Her body was found the next night in a lonely part of the hills.

At Kings Cross Supplementary we are constantly inspected, by the parents.  You can see them looking around when they arrive, at the beginning to deliver their progeny, and at the end to collect them.  They listen carefully to what we say about whatever progress we are able to report, and no doubt compare it equally carefully with what the teachers at their regular schools are saying, and with what the children themselves say about it all.

If their conclusions about us are negative, they can cease paying for the service, and cease receiving it.  This means that if there is bad news about KCS, it will come in a trickle, and none of us teachers will be so discouraged that we will contemplate suicide.  If, on the other hand, they decide that their regular schools are not up to their mark, whatever that may be, their only recourse is to purchase help, from the likes of us.

If the parents are satisfied with our efforts, no second guessing inspectors have the power to make us miserable, or if they have I have not been told about it.  “OFSTED” is not a word I have heard mentioned in all my times at KCS.

Sunday March 30 2008

For once, a threat to commit a school massacre/suicide is being taken seriously:

A middle school principal threatened to kill a group of science teachers if their students did not improve their standardized test scores, according to a complaint filed with the New Braunfels Police Department.

Anita White, who taught at New Braunfels Middle School for 18 years before being transferred this month to the district’s Learning Center, said Principal John Burks made the threat in a Jan. 21 meeting with eighth-grade science teachers.

She said Burks was angry that scores on benchmark tests were not better, and the scores on the upcoming Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests must show improvement.

“He said if the TAKS scores were not as expected he would kill the teachers,” White said. “He said ‘I will kill you all and kill myself.’ He finished the meeting that way and we were in shock.

Obviously, we talked about it among ourselves. He just threatened our lives. After he threatened to kill us, he said, ‘You don’t know how ruthless I can be.’

“We walked out of the meeting just totally dumbfounded because it was not a joke,” White said.

New Braunfels Police spokesman Mike Penshorn said the incident was filed as a verbal assault, but is being investigated as a terroristic threat.

Via the always educational Dave Barry.

One of the oddities of one of my favourite blogs, engadget, is that it seems to be almost entirely paid for by the University of Phoenix.

I’m talking about this advert:


That’s the version of it that appears at the bottom of the page.  There’s another, nearly square, which crops up regularly between postings.  I’ve copied it to here because I like pictures, especially wide and shallow ones like this that don’t take up too much vertical blog space, and because some dumbos may think that they are paying me too, and that this blog is therefore doing very well.

Click on it and you get to here, where it says this:

A leader in online learning, University of Phoenix makes quality higher education highly accessible. Whether you’re seeking an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, we can help you reach your goal while you work-and much sooner than you might expect.

In fact, University of Phoenix has helped thousands of students from over 130 countries achieve the higher education they need to achieve higher success. We can help you too.

These relentless adverts suggest to me that some money is being made here, with distance learning, which I think is a positive trend, because for many it’s either distance learning or no learning at all.

But, I seem to recall the guy who runs this saying that there was some government process going on which encouraged this kind of thing being done by “proper” universities (i.e. government recognised) and discouraged a true free market.  I seem further to recall that the key word here is “accreditation”.  But that’s only vaguely remembered and could be all wrong.

Saturday March 29 2008


The fusty old professorcrank passes on his trade secrets to his favoured students. His folly? Scarcity = value. Back then, maybe. Not now. The real truth about his ‘secret method’ of creating extra resonance for the staccato on an upbow when playing at a moderate to fast speed (or whatever)? Noone knows about it, so noone gives a damn.

The cheery old professor is generous with his knowledge, and feeds ideas to anyone who will take them. He always raises the bar for himself; he has to keep looking for something new to pass on, even though he’s in his eighties. His abundant approach echoes ideaviruses through the generations that follow him. People become inspired.

I tried to add some profound comments to that about how Open Source started as an academic thing, and how Open Source versus Proprietary is a culture war between academics and tradesmen.  But the trouble is, as the above quote illustrates, academics come in many shapes and varieties, and it got too complicated.

When I had my first education blog, the one that crashed and burned, the news from India was mostly good.  This was because they couldn’t afford to spend very much on state education.  The result was a growing and immensely promising educational private sector .  But the educational news from India is getting worse by the month.  They are now getting rich, and the politicians are talking about chucking colossal sums of money at state education.  This kind of headline is typical:

‘Allocate at least 6% of GDP for education’

“Allocate”.  Governments allocate.  People merely spend.

Soon India will be just like the developed world, and almost all the education stories from India will be of how dreadful education is becoming, and that now that it is so bad, there should be lots more of it, paid for by the state, which is what made it so bad to start with.

There will be no stopping this ghastly trend.  Indians have had no practice at explaining that because education is so important, and because the children are our future, blah blah blah, that’s exactly why the government should stay right out of it.  They will merely say fatuous things like: we can’t afford to spend this much.  Which may be true this year, but it concedes the point that matters, which is that if we could afford it we obviously should.  So when we can, there goes the neighbourhood.

Friday March 28 2008

imageGreat new phrase spotted:

challengerially-challenged ...

It’s Alice the Mad Housewife, describing incompetent university students, while discussing parents who are retreating from being demented proxy-social-climbers, back to being normal and nice parents like Alice the Mad Housewife.  Like me, she quotes from this piece.

imageRobots looking after children, and while they’re about it educating them, is going to be one of the huge stories (never mind educational stories) of this century, so this headline ...

Robot Babysitter Entertains The Kiddies

... is a lot more significant than the person who wrote it seems to think.  He thinks that this particular robot is no great shakes, and no doubt he is right.  But it is part of an ongoing research and development effort that is very great shakes indeed.  Sooner or later, someone is going to make this notion work.

At which point many will try to ban it, or reverse it by trying futilely to persuade everyone not to permit it with their children.  But the demand for adequate babysitting is huge, and if this could be robotised, many would be delighted.  So the question becomes: How should the robots do it?  (Given that they will do it.) It doesn’t matter how many people think it’s a bad/creepy/dangerous/evil idea.  They will do it.  The robot babysitter/professors are coming.

Plus, the enterprises making the robots will be massively rich and powerful enough to blast their way past this kind of nonsense (already linked to from here).

Thursday March 27 2008

Some words of wisdom from Greg Sandow, in a email he sent to the dean of a major music school:

Students should be trained in entrepreneurship, or at least should have the opportunity to be trained. Classical musicians will, increasingly, be finding new career paths, and students should prepare themselves.

Music history needs to be rethought. Students now are taught (as I was [and I suspect many of my blog readers were] the history of music as if it was essentially the history of composition. That fits the standard emphasis on masterworks, and on the musician’s expected role as the servant of the composer. But this doesn’t entirely fit historical reality, and also doesn’t help prepare students for the contemporary world. I’d like much more emphasis on entrepreneurship in the past (it certainly existed), on the role of the audience, and on the role of performing musicians.

Students should be encouraged to find their own musical paths. In classical music, students typically learn the repertoire for their instrument. “I’m a clarinetist, so I’ll play the clarinet repertoire.” In other musical genres, a musician will far more likely say, “I play the clarinet. What music do I want to play on my clarinet?” Yo-Yo Ma is an outstanding example of a current classical music star who takes this not very classical approach. I’d like to see students take it, too, looking into their hearts to find out what kind of music is important to them, and then finding ways to make that music (or, more likely, all those many kinds of musics) part of their professional lives. (And of course I strongly believe that all students should compose. If that’s not going to be a requirement, it should at least be strongly encouraged.)

The entrepreneurship thing is especially interesting.  But, can it be taught?

What’s this about then?

So we have a set of procedures that are not needed and a bureaucracy that nobody wants, all supported by a computer system that doesn’t work.

It could be about almost anything, couldn’t it?  Actually it’s about childminding in Scotland.

Wednesday March 26 2008

This is definitely the most interesting item of news I could find, given that I am in a hurry for something right now, on account of having blogged at length elsewhere, and it now being nearly tomorrow:

A ban on the sale of junk food in California schools has sparked a thriving underground market with pupils turning “sugar pushers” and selling contraband confectionery to their peers.

America eh?

Meanwhile here in the UK, when they wanted to say what a fine fellow I was for helping at Kings Cross Supplementary, they gave me a box of chocolates!  Mind you, there’s talk of banning junk food from KCS also, and imposing fruit.  That’ll be fun.  Hey, I’m grumbling sarcastically, just like a real teacher.

Tuesday March 25 2008

imageI’m always glad when education websiters or bloggers email me or comment here, and today it happened again, in the form of a pro-home-education comment, with an attached link to South West Surrey Home Education.  It all seems to be pretty recent.  They have a new blog, but the new famous quotes page has, for now, more stuff up.  One of my favourites was the most ancient one of all, St Augustine saying:

I learned most, not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.

I don’t say that this is necessarily true.  Just: I like it.

The website is already sidebarred.  Well, as I first type this in, it is just about to be.  As soon as the blog gets into its stride, I’ll add that also.

I’m in no desperate hurry to learn about all this kind of activity.  If I just keep blogging away here, such information will surely accumulate in its own good time, which for me means slowly.  Meanwhile, thanks to Ruth for that connection.

He enjoyed this, and I enjoyed this, in connection with the collapse of Women’s Studies:

There are very few things that the government have got right in the last ten years. Independence for the Bank of England was one. The other (and I can only think of the two) was the imposition of fees for university education. Suddenly, doing the student bit is no longer a matter of “an amusingly tipsy way of spending three years” or “a lifestyle choice”, but a matter of finding a way to do something that is useful to society - which is to say, something that people are willing to pay for. It’s small wonder that people are now avoiding mickey mouse degrees in favour of something which might actually give them a living at the end of it.

The counter-argument to my hypothesis is that a university education is not vocational - it’s about interacting with clever people, broadening one’s mind, having the time to think, blah, blah, rhubarb. To which I would respond that we’ve got the internet now.  You want mind broadening? Find a decent chatroom.

But how do you know what is useful?  A good test is whether it ever makes sense to yell: “LET ME THROUGH, I’M A ----IST!!”, or for somebody else to yell: “QUICK, RING FOR A ----IST!!” Not an infallible test.  Importance is not the same as urgency.  But there is a big overlap.

Monday March 24 2008

From the Telegraph:

Nine years ago, when Honoré and his wife - travel writer Miranda French - moved into the area, it wasn’t as it is now. “But somewhere gets a name, then a critical mass, and becomes more that way,” he says with a sad shake of his head. At 40, he now feels like the last of the old guard, surrounded by younger, richer parents who are even more steamed up than he is about their children hitting milestones earlier and faster than ever before. “Everything has to be perfect - houses, teeth, clothes. There’s lots of input, lots of tutoring. Childhood is turned into a rat race.”

What better place to write a book about how we can rescue our children from what Honoré calls “the culture of hyper-parenting”? This global movement for the destruction of childhood has crept up on us so insidiously, and is now so deeply embedded, that most of us scarcely know we are part of it until we have an “Aha” moment. In my own case, it was not until several of my children - then under 10 - had wailed piteously about not wanting to go to violin/tennis/French lessons that I began to wonder whether they were learning anything other than early neuroticism from my eager attempts to expand their minds.

I’m rather suspicious of this “destruction of childhood” notion.  This is one of those phrases laden with ideological baggage, suggesting to me a quarrel between two ideologists, one proposing a new version of childhood and another defending an established but equally unnatural one.  In this case it’s “calm down” versus “push them”.  Previous versions of the same sorts of arguments have involved sex education, and before that television.  Now, along with test scores, it’s also the internet and computers.  Children having a “right to childhood” becomes an excuse for forbidding things.

Nevertheless, he has a point.

Aware that the competition for the best jobs is not just hot but international, we start by playing Mozart to our children in the womb to speed up their synapses and carry on from there, loading four-year-olds down with homework and 16-year-olds with extra-curricular activities to enhance their university applications.

There’s another button of mine, in the form of a rather incontinently used “we” there.  How many people, really, play Mozart to foetuses?  But, again, I get the point.  Some parents are too pushy.

Casual pastimes, such as kicking a ball around, are transformed into tense semi-professional ordeals, and children are hedged about by so many pressures and restrictions that the specialness of childhood - a time to muck about and discover for yourself - is lost.

What seems to me odd about that is the clear implication here that adulthood is not a time to muck about and discover for yourself.  For me, the great joy of adulthood is that for at least some of the time, I get to muck about and nobody tells me to stop.  But again, point taken.  Certainly children like to muck about also.

The result is a generation of children who are wired, pampered and constantly monitored. Creativity is lost. Rates of depression, self-harm and chronic fatigue are soaring. University teachers report that prospective students, unused to independence, hand over their mobiles in the middle of interviews saying: “Why don’t you sort this out with my mum?”

Britain is in some ways worse than other countries, he found. “On schooling we are close to the mad end of the spectrum: we start as young as possible and believe that the supreme yardstick is a high test score. We are right up there with the exam-hell cultures of the Far East, except that they have been doing it for longer and are now trying to get away from it.”

“Exam-hell cultures”.  Good phrase that.

He has a blog.

Sunday March 23 2008

Fraser Nelson, writes about the race between the two major political parties to be the most Swedish:

Also, millions are being spent on these new schools as per the Brown-Balls cash fixation. They remain wedded to the 1970s Grange Hill model of education, where schools are standalone buildings of about 1,000 pupils, for administrative convenience. The Swedish model is a true social market system, which allocates cash according to the priorities of parents. So its new schools usually occupy office buildings (and on average have fewer than 200 pupils). Parents don’t care how grand the building is, and would rather the money was spent on teachers and education. In this way, new schools can open in a jiffy. It will take years for the rebuilding of the two City Academies outlined in my newspaper.

Indeed.  One of the great twentieth century architectural nonsenses is the claim that form follows function, and accordingly that different functions require different and very expensive forms.  But form does not follow function; form follows fashion.  You can do anything you like inside a decent building.  Live.  Research.  Store books.  Teach.  Anything you like.  I once worked in a bookshop.  Before it was a bookshop, it was a banana warehouse.  Before that, who knows?  It was just a building.  Now it’s a posh shoe shop?  What next?  Whatever anyone cares to do, is what.  Fraser Nelson is quite right. Schools don’t have to be built, they just have to be acquired and moved into.

Saturday March 22 2008

Incoming from my friend Michael Jennings, with the link to this:

Here, buried in my sixth paragraph, is the most important nugget: we’ve reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal. They are ready to dump our schools.

I came to this conclusion recently while attending Brainstorm 2008, a delightful conference for computer people in K-12 schools throughout Wisconsin. They didn’t hold breakout sessions on technology battles or tactics, but the idea was in the air. These people were under siege.

I started writing educational software in 1978. The role of instructional technology has changed since then from a gimmick to a novelty to an effort to an essential component of any curriculum.

Kids can’t go to school today without working on computers. But having said that, in the last five years more and more technical resources have been turned to how to keep technology OUT of our schools. Keeping kids from instant messaging, then text messaging or using their phones in class is a big issue as is how to minimize plagiarism from the Internet. These defensive measures are based on the idea that unbound use of these communication and information technologies is bad, that it keeps students from learning what they must, and hurts their ability to later succeed as adults.

But does it?

These are kids who have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. But far more important, there is emerging a class of students whose PARENTS have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. The Big Kahuna in educational discipline isn’t the school, it is the parent. ...

Well, Amen to that last bit.  Cringely is one of the sharpest technocommentators around, and if he says it, it’s worth listening to.

For me, one of the seminal moments at Kings Cross Supplementary comes twice, once at the beginning of proceedings, and once again at the end of the half time break.  This is when the boys must put away their computer games machines, and get out their exercise books and buckle down to what we (and most definitely their parents) consider to be proper work.  But, seeing the eager intelligence that they all show when computer gaming, I do wonder.  They form eager little groups gazing enraptured at the computer screen, like those old pictures of old Belshevik propaganda performers eagerly clustering round a newspaper to rejoice at farm production triumphs, or like my Billion Monkeys, that I go on about at my personal blog, gazing delightedly at their digital photos.

My strategy for investigating Cringely’s hypothesis, adapted for my younger children for whom computer games are the big deal rather than texting and internetting, is: ask the children what they think.  Do you think computer games make you smarter?  Smarter at computer games, certainly.  But what of life?  Is life itself becoming more like a computer game?

Cringely again:

Education still seems to define knowing as more important than being able to find, yet which do you do more of in your work? And what’s wrong with crimping a paragraph here or there from Cringely if it shows you understand the topic?


His final paragraph:

Technology is beginning to assail the underlying concepts of our educational system - a system that’s huge and rich and so far fairly immune to economic influence. But the support structure for those hallowed and not so hallowed halls has always been parents willing to pay tuition and alumni willing to give money, both of which are likely to change over a generation for reasons I’ve just spent 1469 words explaining. We are nearing the time when paying dues and embracing proxies for quality may give way to having the ability to know what kids really know, to verify what they can really do, not as 365th in their class at Stanford but as Channing Cringely, who just graduated from nowhere with the proven ability to design time machines.

And mine, for now.  Happy Easter. 

Friday March 21 2008

I have been to Poland a few times and each time I got the strong impression that they are very, very smart people.  So this does not surprise me:

SOARING numbers of students from Eastern Europe are coming here to go to university – as the number of UK undergraduates falls.

New figures show the number of Polish students studying in British colleges rose by 56 per cent to 6,770 between 2006 and 2007.

There are more Polish students in Britain than those from Spain or Italy, the Higher Education Statistics Agency said.

There were also big rises in Lithuanian and Latvian students.

Meanwhile, a report said population changes would see 70,000 fewer full-time British students over the next decade.

And I’ve also been to Lithuania.  Ditto.  I reckon these people will raise the tone of Brit universities.

Am I correct in supposing that Poles, being in the EU, only have to pay the British (i.e. EU) rate to go to British universities and that British universities have to take them, whereas non-EU-ers have to pay a lot more?  I should know about this.  So someone educate me.  Please.

And if British universities do have to accept all EU-ers at the British rate, could that be the reason why the British rate has just gone up?

Thursday March 20 2008

Time for another book chunk, and again I reach for a book about sport, What Sport Tells Us About Life by the Middlesex and England professional cricketer, and writer and journalist Ed Smith, who read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.  Sport figures prominently in education, if only because boys do love it so, and Ed Smith’s book about sport has a lot to say about education.  This particular passage once again pours a bucket of cold water all over that cliché about how those but can do while those who can’t teach.  The Billy Beane story shows that failing at a game often prepares you ideally to be in charge of it, and of telling others how to play it and run it.  As Smith says towards the end of this excerpt, “we never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings”.

An academic study once traced the fortunes of a generation of high-school beauty queens across America.  How had the beautiful people done in the game of real life?  Not very well.  Fifteen years on, the high-school beauty queens were typically doing worse - in terms of wealth, careers and even happiness - than their less good-looking contemporaries.  They had peaked too early.  It is another version of the parable of the hare and the tortoise.

We can only speculate what went wrong.  Perhaps they had found adolescence so easy that the rest of life was a slow process of disappointment.  Maybe, all too familiar with childhood adulation, they crumpled at the first adult rejections. Perhaps there is something in the cliché that you can be too pretty for your own good.

How could the same principle - the curse of talent - apply to much more interesting worlds than the adult frustrations of ageing beauty queens?  A baseball team, a brilliant manager and a publishing phenomenon are a good place to start.  The team is the Oakland Athletics, the manager is Billy Beane and the bestseller is Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

Not only is Moneyball one of the best and most influential sports books ever written, but it also could have been subtitled, ‘How being the sporting equivalent of a beauty queen ruined my career and made me turn conventional wisdom on its head.’

imageIf you were trying genetically to construct the perfect professional sportsman, you would probably end up with someone who looked like Billy Beane.  By the time he was fourteen, he was 6’ 4” (six inches taller than his father), impossibly athletic and seemingly able to pick up and master any sport at will. Beane was the high-school quarterback, the star basketball player and a peerless baseball player.  Michael Lewis wrote about Beane in Moneyball, ‘He found talents in himself almost before his body was ready to exploit them: he could dunk a basketball before his hands were big enough to palm it.’

Scouts from professional baseball hovered around the schoolboy prodigy, each of them desperate to get to know Beane personally.  The attention was so overwhelming that Beane would run from practice straight to a friend’s house to avoid the scouts’ incessant phone calls to his home.

Beane had each of the five ‘tools’ that baseball scouts revered: he could run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power.  Beane was also intelligent, ambitious and intensely competitive.  Above all, Beane had the kind of sharp features the scouts respected.  Many of them still believed they could tell by the structure of a boy’s face whether he would make it in professional sport.  They had a phrase they used: ‘the good face’.  Beane had the good face.

Unsurprisingly, Beane was first-round draft pick by the New York Mets.  He hoped to combine his new $125,000 salary with his admission to Stanford - but the university withdrew Beane’s place once they discovered he would not be playing baseball for them.  The young man’s predestined greatness as a baseball player now faced no further impediments.

Except it never happened.  Beane had a miserable six-year major-league career, averaging just .219 with only three home runs.  He played for different teams at different levels; he tried every possible technical approach; he smashed up dressing rooms and raged against himself; he retained the aura of a superstar without the achievements.  He simply couldn’t hit.  Michael Lewis summed up what had gone wrong for Beane: ‘A wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn’t know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it.  It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.’

‘Whom the gods wish to destroy,’ wrote Cyril Connolly, ‘they first call promising.’ By 1990, Beane had had enough.  He walked from the locker room to the front office of the Oakland Athletics and became the first professional baseball player ever to pronounce the sentence: ‘I quit as a player. I want to be a scout.’

The end of one of the most disappointing playing careers ushered in the beginning of one of the great managerial careers.  Beane was quickly recognized as a brilliant scout and judge of players, and in 1997 graduated to far greater powers as general manager - the youngest GM in the game.  The turnaround was astonishing.  In 1997, the Athletics won sixty-five and lost ninety-seven games.  From 2000 onward, the As consistently won around ninety games, all of this despite losing their stars every year due to having one of the smallest payrolls in baseball.  In 2002, the As won 103 games - matched only by the New York Yankees, a team that cost three times as much.

How had Beane managed to mess up a playing career that ‘couldn’t go wrong’, and then to mastermind a managerial record that was apparently impossible within the financial inequalities of major-league baseball?  The answers are linked.  Experiencing the first had led Beane to the solutions he used to achieve the second.

Beane’s reflections on his own career had taught him to respect performance - largely because it was never demanded of him as an emerging player.  Everyone assumed talent would get him through.  Where he had been indulged himself, he was careful not to make the same mistake with others.

Talent, he discovered, is rated too highly. One cliché that bounced around the dressing-room walls was: ‘He’s got the talent, so he’s bound to get better.’ In fact, talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement.  And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve.  Super-talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues.  Beane could vouch for that himself.

Conclusion one: the As stopped signing high-school prodigies who looked great in a baseball uniform and seemed predestined to ‘make it’, and started signing college players who had a proven track record of being able to score runs - and something going for them beyond baseball.  Everyone said the As were mad. But the runs kept coming.

If talent was overrated, Beane discovered that personality was too often ignored by scouts and managers.  The baseball community overestimated its own capacity to graft real psychological resilience on to inert, talented young men.  But it also suffered from a reflexive fear of players who operated outside the predictable range of jock-sportsman routine behaviour.  Many coaches wanted clay models to mould with their own imprints of what a champion should look like.  The difficulty, of course, is that real champions want to be themselves.  So while show ponies were patiently indulged by the baseball community, independent-minded performers were written off as difficult ‘eccentrics’.  Principle two: we’ll have the eccentrics, you can keep the show ponies.

By 2002, Beane was the most sought-after general manager in baseball.  He was almost hired away by the Boston Red Sox, while two of his assistants went on to become general managers themselves.  In 2004, Theo Epstein won the World Series with the Red Sox using methods devised alongside Beane at Oakland - a case of flattery by imitation.  In fact, by that point almost every team was at least dabbling with what had become known as Moneyball methods.

Beane’s personal history was central to the Oakland experiment.  We never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings.  They often form the foundations of our clearest analytical insights.  Beane had wrestled with the reasons for his own frustrating career and come up with some original answers.

In Beane’s case, the way his own career had foundered and been misinterpreted became the guiding principle of his managerial code.  He concluded: the baseball system couldn’t even imagine I would mess things up - but I did, despite phenomenal talent and intense ambition, so there must be fundamental flaws in the received wisdom behind the system.

Wednesday March 19 2008

As regulars here will know I (a) try to ignore America, but (b) regularly fail, because America is so cute and quaint and yet, to an Englishman like me, still just about understandable.  And I can’t help switching to American to describe what I am experiencing today, which is what we here in England call a cock-up.  My computer screen has conked out.

So, what have I learned?

First, I have learned, yet again, that computer catastrophes are seldom that catastrophic.  Most computer catastrophies sort themselves out in due course and turn out not to be.  So I need to post stuff on the internet every day?  Yes.  Can I do this, right now, this evening, long after the computer shops have shut, on my regular computer?  No.  But, I now have an irregular computer, in the form of an Asus Eee PC, which I have successfully, albeit after a bit of thought, connected to the internet.  I didn’t use some magic code to access my router (?), through the ether, which I still don’t know how to do, which is stupid, and which I have learned that I should find out about.  But I did use a bit of wire, and here I am blogging again.

And second, I have been reminded that pretty much any experience can, especially if I follow the example of those Americans with their learning experiences, be turned into a learning experience.

Tuesday March 18 2008

I have been remiss in keeping up with the Adam Smith Institute Blog of late, having recently discovered that I have not even had it on my blogroll here, this being because I used to write for it but then stopped writing for it and took it away from the “other blogs I write for” list, but then omitted to add it to the regular blogroll.

There have recently been two more specifically educational postings by Madsen Pirie in his Common Errors series, namely this:

“A university or college education is a public good that society should pay for.”

... and this:

“Schooling should seek to make children equal.”

But the latest Common Error ...

“Freedom is all very well for the strong, but the poor and the weak come off worse without the state services.”

... also has a strong educational vibe to it.  Quote:

It is not just the “strong” who benefit from freedom. Most people benefit by giving effect to preferences and having competitors struggling to supply them. Everyone benefits by the improvement which innovations and new types of service bring when the service is private. It might be the strong who take the lead in demanding better services, but the improvements made as a result usually spread down to benefit others. It is the discriminating customers who improve the product, but everyone gains from the improvement. Even those who know nothing about electronics have their products improved by the actions of those who do.

There is good reason to suppose that if the poor and weak were given the same type of choices that others have, they would get better services than those doled out to them under universal state provision. Choice of schools, as in Sweden, leads to improvement in education and in parental satisfaction. Choice in healthcare would achieve similar improvement.

I am more than ever convinced that if the entire state education system were to drop dead tomorrow morning, that would be a great improvement for some people immediately, for many people in a few weeks, for most people in a few months, and for almost everyone in a few years.  After a decade, the results would be miraculous.  Some of the money saved should be spent on more policemen and more temporary prisons and juvenile detention centres, and in a perfect world, the rest of the money no longer wasted would be knocked off the income tax.  But even if the money no longer wasted was instead spent on something more frivolous, less well-meaning, and hence merely less harmful than state education, like jobs for the otherwise unfrocked bureaucrats doing absolutely nothing but write bitter reports for each other to read and snarl about, that would still be a great improvement for the rest of us.

The headline alone tells most of the story: Classrooms have become war zones, battered and threatened teachers say.

Key quote:

Official figures also suggest that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to exclude violent pupils because of the growing tendency by governors and appeal panels to overturn the head’s decision. Between 1997 and 2007 permanent exclusions fell by 25 per cent to 9,170 cases nationwide. But over the same period the proportion of expulsions overruled by panels rose from 20 to 24 per cent.

Which means that many other pupils that a head would have excluded in former times now also stay, to make more mayhem, not because the head wants to keep the pupils, but simply because the head fears he/she will be overruled.

More war talk here.

Monday March 17 2008

Guido Fawkes has been in Vietnam, where ...

… Guido has discovered that the governing Communist Party is privatising the provision of state-funded education ...

So, they’re cleverer than Joan Bakewell then.  (See below.)

Can’t find anything about this via Google.

imageI caught Joan Bakewell on the telly today, emitting a particular Fixed Quantity Fallacy, in this case the Fixed Quantity of Education Fallacy.  (Here‘s a more generalised version of the same principle.)

What she said was that if the educational private sector were totally nationalised, all those wonderful private sector facilities – sports grounds, science labs, swimming pools, great teachers, and so on – would all become “available to all”.

No they wouldn’t.  A lot of these places and facilities would simply disappear, crumble, be shut down.  What now makes private sector schools superior is their Rules (see the previous posting).  Nationalising them would change these Rules for the worse.  These schools would become harder to work in, less fun and less easy to teach in.  Many of the teachers would give up, teachers who don’t now just teach, but who now look after sports grounds, science labs and swimming pools, tasks which would become much harder and more stressful.

On the other hand, changing the Rules of state schools for the better, towards how the Rules now are in private sector schools, would increase the quantity of education available, for all.

Sunday March 16 2008

The other day Alex Singleton dropped by, as he likes to do from time to time.  In among listening, as I like to do, to Alex talking about his burgeoning career as a journalist and media commentator, I heard myself saying to him, in connection with the teaching I’ve been doing at Kings Cross Supplementary, something that I now want to write down.  Every institution, I heard myself orate at the long suffering Alex, has a bottom line situation.  Ugly cliché phrase, but it was what I said to him and it will have to do.  What I have in mind is the situation that reveals who is in charge and what the rules are.  Really are, as opposed to what it is merely said that they are.

At Kings Cross Supplementary, I recently witnessed a bottom line situation which revealed what the rules of Kings Cross Supplementary really are.

The scene is a maths lesson, given by Mr Hodson.  This is not the usual one I witness, the one that Mr Vora gives, every Tuesday evening.  This is a lesson being given by Mr Hodson during the half term school I helped out with a few weeks back, on a Friday morning.

So anyway, Mr Hodson is explaining whatever it is, and at the back a boy is not paying attention but instead chatting to his neighbour.  Mr Hodson reprimands him.  This doesn’t work, so in a further effort to elicit total attention, Mr Hodson makes a speech:  “This is not fun.  I’m not telling you this for fun.  You’re not here for fun.  You’re here to learn.” When he teaches, Mr Hodson is not a fun guy.  But the children like him because he teaches well, which actually is quite fun.  But this speech of his doesn’t do the trick either.  So then Mr Hodson says this:  “If you don’t pay attention, you will have to get out.  Go.  Leave.  Go home.  It’s your choice.” I’m standing at the back thinking: he’s taking a bit of a chance isn’t he?  What if the kid takes him at his word?  Then he’d look a plonker.

But now comes the bottom line moment.  The boy does as he is told.  He shuts up and pays attention from then on.

Why?  Well, of course it’s his parents, and probably, in particular, his mother.  If he gets sent home early, his parents will be informed and all hell will break loose at home, all hell that he doesn’t dare face.  Therefore he does what Mr Hodson says.  Push came to shove, Hodson to Boy, and Push won.  And Hodson to Boy turned out, actually, to be Parents to Boy.

And there we have the “Constitution”, so to speak, The Rules, the Way It Is, of Kings Cross Supplementary.  The teachers of Kings Cross Supplementary supply the mechanism, the structure, the system.  We give the orders.  But we are not why those orders are obeyed.  The parents are the ones fueling the mechanism, supplying the vital energy.  They are the ones who make the mechanism actually work and make it able to drive their children forward.

Compare and contrast the above Constitution with that of another kind of school, Other School, where the bottom line moment comes when a kid (which can quickly become a group of kids) chooses not to do as he is told, because there is no Push trumping his Shove.  The teachers at Other School, as at Kings Cross Supplementary, give the orders.  But unlike at Kings Cross Supplementary, there is not enough at Other School to ensure that those orders are always obeyed.  The bottom line situation is that if the teacher can’t cajole, charm, charismatise, terrify all the kids into obeying his orders, then the teacher is the one who ends up either leaving with his tail between his legs, or staying but in a state of subjugation.

At Kings Cross Supplementary, all the children have to obey us, or get hell from their parents.  Some of the parents at Other School do enforce obedience to teachers upon their children, but some do not, which means that the place ends up being run by the children whose parents do not control them. 

The Head of Other School makes a huge difference, good or bad.  He has the power to make the life of any particular individual in his care, teacher or pupil, a living hell.  But if he does not deploy this power with extreme cunning, he is liable to preside over an anarchic mess.  At Other School, everything depends on the Head, and if the Head is not up to it, for whatever reason, it can all crumble.  Even if the Head is “good” (but not a genius) that can still make things very hard for the individual teacher, because although a genius Head is everywhere at once, a merely good one cannot be.

But at Kings Cross Supplementary, there is this great army of people, the parents, the mothers especially, prowling around the perimeter like concentration camp guards, making everything work, tolerating no disobedience, enabling even the most feeble, tired or cranky of teachers to do some worthwhile teaching, demanding the best of everyone, and, on the whole, getting it.

I realise that all this talk of orders and obedience – even “political genius” and “concentration camp guards” (!!!) – is a long way from my libertarian dreamings, of a world in which I teach children because I like teaching them and because they like being taught by me, and in which the mere suggestion from either party that the relationship is imperfect will cause an immediate adjustment to it.  But reality is what it is.  The recognition of compulsion is the beginning of liberty.

UPDATE: Other School!

Saturday March 15 2008


The larger point ... is that teachers who are unable to present controversial, even partisan, materials in a balanced manner thereby show themselves unfit to be members of their profession. I pause to consider whether this isn’t a rather immoderate statement. It is - for they might be able to teach well in non-controversial areas, to which they might then confine themselves or be confined. On the other hand, any teacher of politics or history or social studies of one kind or another who is unable to present controversial, even partisan, materials in a balanced manner thereby shows him or herself to be unfit to teach young people in those subjects. I think that is now stated with the balance it merits.

Indeed.  However, is it not the case that the internet has made this problem somewhat less of a problem, because the internet has saturated society with contrasting views of the world?  The internet breaks all intellectual monopolies, even if teachers plug them shamelessly in their classrooms.

I don’t say that unbalanced classrooms are now no problem, just, for that reason at least, somewhat less of a problem than they used to be.

Thursday March 13 2008

Beware the Eton Posse:

Four boys have been suspended from Eton College after a 13-year-old girl was allegedly robbed and assaulted on the school’s playing fields.

The group of pupils aged 13 and 14, who called themselves “The Posse”, are reported to have been drinking alcohol and to have possibly taken drugs before carrying out the attack.

A local girl claims that her handbag was stolen and that she suffered at least one broken rib during the incident at the school’s Long Meadow playing fields on Monday evening.

The playing fields of Eton are going down in the world.

Last Tuesday was a big day for me at Kings Cross Supplementary, because I was filling in for Mr Vora, who was away for some mysterious family crisis reason.  Whether the children learned very much I cannot say, but I did.  I was teaching them about centimetres, metres and kilometres.

Lesson number one for me was that indelible marker pens that I use for writing the names of movies on DVDs that I have recorded off of the telly are called indelible for a reason.  They’re indelible.  Well, not quite, luckily.  Spit, and the immediate use of some of the toilet roll I had brought with me meant that the thing I wrote on the white board was reduced to a slight pink smear, so it could have been worse.  But not having a proper (water-based?) felt tip marker seriously cramped my style for the next two hours.  Maybe if I had asked for one, I might have got one, but maybe that would only have interrupted the other teachers to no purpose.  Does Mr Vora have is own?  I suspect yes.  Oh well, teach and learn.

I had been warned about doing this, and I had tried to think of all the things that might go wrong – such as riot, violence, hostile indifference.  The wrong kind of marker turned out to be the big thing that went wrong.


Apart from that, the interesting thing was the contrast between the two classes.  It was almost a controlled experiment.  All the children at Kings Cross Supplementary are well brought up by parents who love them and who want them - really want them - to get ahead and do well, and will make hell for them at home if they hear they’ve been playing up in class.  All the children are nice, and basically obedient.  I am an inexperienced, benign, clever, knowledgeable, rather frightened teacher, not happy about shouting.  So: same social milieu, same teacher.  Nevertheless, the younger ones whom I tried to teach for the first hour were basically teetering on the edge of chaos (albeit happy chaos), while the older ones were not.  There were about six younger ones and more like twelve older ones, so class size should have made it easier for me to “control” (quotes because I do so hate doing this) should have been easier for the first hour.  But the second hour went decidedly more smoothly.  This despite Miss Rogerson, who is in charge of all these Supplementary Schools and who came on Tuesday (just to make sure there were no riots or fights I imagine), giving the small children a small rocket for not paying attention when I did do some half-hearted shouting and they still ignored me.

On the basis of just two sessions of classroom teaching in my entire life, namely those two, I put this difference down to age.  The younger children were in a basic sense unsuited by their intellectual and emotional nature to sitting at desks and doing sums from an arithmetic book.  They wanted to socialise and have fun, or just gaze at whatever happened to take their fancy.  They wanted to talk with each other.  The older children, on the other hand, had undergone some metamorphosis of the sort that made them, in some odd way, quite like doing this kind of thing, even if they didn’t like it, if you see what I mean.  So, the older ones just got on with it.  They got stuck.  I helped, individually, while others worked or waited politely for my attention.  They didn’t “get” the question, so I explained the question.  The time flew by.

This does not mean that it was a waste of my or their time for me to be teaching the small children like this, or a waste of anybody’s time to be teaching them like this, although I now understand the argument that it is a waste of time rather better.  I’m just, as American commenters sometimes say, saying.  I often read that in parts of the European continent, they teach very young children by singing songs in circles and going on nature walks and talking and playing with stuff, concentrating on socialising.  Only when they get to about six do they switch to more solitary reading, writing and arithmetic.  I now understand better why.

I sort of knew a lot of this already, of course.  I’ve not lived for six decades, albeit without children of my own and having been the youngest of me and my siblings, without noticing things about children of this age and that age.  But teaching children all in a group is something else again.  You really learn stuff that before that you only sort of knew.

Despite all my difficulties with pens and recalcitrant small children and not liking to shout, I enjoyed myself.  The basic rules of Kings Cross Supplementary work.  Only children with very committed parents attend.  The children mostly do as instructed.  The children are nice, to us and to each other.  The place works.  They do learn.  Being immersed in all that is satisfying.

Wednesday March 12 2008

Mark Edmundson writes about the connectedness of his students:

Three thousand first-year students entered my university last year, and 2,906 of them brought laptops with them; 90 brought desktops. Four students - the incoming James Deans and Marlon Brandos? - showed up computerless. (Ten years ago, half of our first-year students came to school without computers.) At Virginia, as at just about every other university, almost all buildings are now equipped with wireless routers. This began to happen about four years ago, and many of us professors barely noticed it, in part because we generally travel only from office to classroom. But our students are nomads, on the move all day. Wherever they sit, they set up Internet Command Central. Now students in almost any classroom can get directly onto the Internet and, given the shieldlike screens on their laptops, they can call up what they like. Especially in the big lecture classes now, everyone’s flitting from Web site to Web site, checking e-mail, and instant messaging. Do they pay any attention to the class? My students tell me that they’re experts in paying attention to many things at once: It’s no problem at all.

Not for them.

I missed this WSJ piece asking why Finnish kids are so smart, when it was published on the 29th of last month.  Quote:

The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. “We don’t have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have,” says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.

Maybe part of it is that Finnish children grow up happy.  I visited Finland long ago, and the children in particular did seem very happy.

Seriously, I do think that there’s a connection between children being happy and children being ready to learn, because happy children are less downcast when they find things difficult to grasp at first.  They are not plunged into deep gloom by their temporary ignorance or befuddlement, merely into a state of mild confusion.  They’re not so ready to damn themselves as incurably thick, and switch off.

Come to think of it, there’s also a connection between adults being happy and adults being willing to learn.  Don’t you think?


There’s very little advice in men’s magazines, because men don’t think there’s a lot they don’t know. Women do. Women want to learn. Men think, “I know what I’m doing, just show me somebody naked.”

Number 77 here.

Pictures from a Russian Police School.  This one is the most school-like:


I’m not saying this is a good school, mind.  Just: a school.

Here’s a new way to win ten thousand dollars:

The Center for Union Facts argues that teachers’ unions oppose education reform, protect bad teachers and misuse teachers’ money while their union contracts “wrap school districts in red tape.”

Because of “union-defended” labor laws, however, it can be impossible to fire a bad teacher, the Center says. Therefore, the group plans to accept nominations for the “ten worst union-protected teachers in America.” It will offer to pay them $10,000 apiece to get out of the classroom for good.

“Dedicated, professional teachers have nothing to fear from this contest,” the Center for Union Facts said, adding it intends to “showcase the worst of the worst.”

The unions are not happy:

Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), blasted Berman’s “anti-union front group” for launching an “assault” on teachers.

A more persuasive response would be to explain that unions don’t protect bad teachers, or that the Center for Union Facts has a lousy way of picking out bad teachers.  Bad people often make good points, and these points have to be answered if you want to win the argument.

But, what do I know?  Center for Union Facts website here.  AFT website here.

Joanne Jacobs is sceptical.  And it’s getting a lot of attention generally.  Instapundit links to this.

Personally I prefer helping to create keenly priced alternatives to state education to just yelling about state education.  It’s in the nature of state services that they get captured by incompetents and maniacs and eventually degenerate into being beyond redemption.  Which is yelling, I suppose, but of a different sort.

It’s not a good time ...

A Seventh Day Adventist who persuaded churchgoers to invest millions of pounds in a City scam that funded his extravagant lifestyle has been jailed for seven years.

Lindani Mangena, 24, of Romford, east London, was described as a “modern-day Moses” for his promises to deliver profits of up to 3,000% to fellow worshippers.

At Southwark crown court judge Peter Testar condemned Mangena as “pitiless and arrogant” for deceiving more than 1,000 Seventh Day Adventists.

... to be a Seventh Day Adventist.  Here comes the education angle:

The first “faith school” from a non Anglican or Catholic tradition to be funded by the taxpayer is in crisis. A hit squad has been sent in to try to rescue the John Loughborough School in Haringey, founded by a fundamentalist cult, the Seventh-day Adventists.

Haringey council has - with the Government’s backing - sent in its own appointees to take over from headteacher June Alexis at a time of mounting concern that the school is in “meltdown”. The council has refused to confirm or deny claims that Dr Alexis has been suspended.

The school is facing the prospect of a damning report from Ofsted after the education watchdog warned Dr Alexis last year that pupils’ standards of achievement and behaviour were not good enough. Ofsted served a formal “notice to improve” on John Loughborough a year ago and the Evening Standard understands that senior inspectors have visited the school in recent weeks to see if it is making progress.

You have to wonder if these two events are in any way connected, if only by a general culture of incompetence and of vulnerability to fantasists and/or con-artists.  Miracles don’t just happen.  Someone has to work them.

Tuesday March 11 2008

I have just stumbled upon a brief history of British state education, written from the point of view of someone who is strongly in favour of it, entitled Education in England: a brief history, as if there is no other kind of education.  Chapter 1 is entitled 600-1800 Beginnings, as if nothing educational happened in Britain for twelve hundred years except occasional glimmerings of state education.  Derek Gillard is well aware that this is not so.  I am merely taking exception to his chapter titles.

This reminds somewhat me of people who talk about “music”, when what they are actually talking about is Western classical music.  (The difference being that Western classical music, for all that there are many other kinds of good music, really has been fabulous.)

Nevertheless, if you are as determinedly opposed to the whole principle of state education as I am, and as Derek Gillard is in favour of it, you can learn a lot about how somebody with many opposite opinions to yours (and mine) sees the world.  There is much worthwhile information there.

Monday March 10 2008

The menace of all-over body sprays, used by boys, bad for girls:

A Minnesota lawmaker proposed a bill Monday urging a fragrance-free educational campaign to discourage students from dousing themselves in scents that aggravate classmates with asthma and other health problems.

This is not nearly as crazy as it might sound to some.  I have a close relative whose early life was made a living hell by her being allergic to artificial scents.

Sunday March 09 2008

Recently I recorded, pretty much by accident, a slice of Live At The Apollo with Jack Dee, or whatever it’s called.  But it wasn’t Jack Dee, it was Joan Rivers, and she had this to say, among many other things:


Education.  I spit on education.  No man will ever put his hand up your dress looking for a library card.

She also said something approximating to this:

All my jewelry is done by child labour.  Little fingers little stones.  What do want to be?  An eight year old prostitute?  Or work in my air-conditioned basement?

Food for thought, I think.

Incoming, from Alex Singleton:

I wrote this on private schools and have received 47 comments so far which is vastly more than normal. This much be a touchy subject. Thought, given your edublogging hat, this would be of interest to you.

That’s 47 comments on something posted today.

First paragraph of Alex’s piece:

Finding the cash each term to pay for school fees is a struggle for many parents. They struggle because they have been failed by school lotteries, catchment areas and the lack of good state school places. These parents are paying twice, once for the state system that is failing them, and again in private school fees. Now the Charity Commission wants them to pay a third time.

A third time, that is to say, in the sense that private schools must offer bursaries to the poor, to prove that they are charities, or else lose their charitable status.

In Brian World, taxation is low to zero, so the question of which institutions are or are not exempt from tax is not a big deal.

But my more serious, life-as-it-is-now comment is that everyone in this argument seems either aggressively to proclaim or tacitly to accept that private education is only about rich kids.  That is not my experience.  Next Tuesday evening I will be teaching children of people of very limited means, in a non-state enterprise.  Okay, it’s not a very big enterprise, but I suspect that there is lots of this kind of thing going on under the radar.

There is such a pent-up demand for such services that as soon as you demonstrate that you are reasonably good at supplying it - which is not at all easy, by the way, or else many more people would be doing it and demand for it would not be so pent-up - it sells itself by word-of-mouth.  Therefore no publicity is required.  Therefore the media never get bombarded with propaganda about it.  Instead, media coverage of education is full of the huffings and puffings of politicians, promising the earth at other people’s expense, and then the soft-goal media coverage that consists of pointing out that the politicians have failed to deliver, which you can rely on rival politicians to supply you with, provided you also print their huffings and puffings to the effect that they will do better.

Meanwhile, I get the impression that media coverage is rather feared by little operations like the one I contribute to, because of its tendency to stir up political rows and generally rock the boat, it being such a small boat.  If the atmosphere of such potential rows is anything like that emanating from the comments on Alex Singleton’s posting, that would definitely be something worth avoiding.

On the other hand, I woudn’t say no to 47 comments on anything here, however mutually insulting.  (Well, actually I would say no to comments that were too insulting.  Come to think of it.  Nothing like pondering problems you don’t have, eh?)

The Times today has an excerpt from a book about The heroic Englishman China will never forget.  Turns out he was a teacher.  They used to make movies about this kind of thing.  Perhaps the idea is that they should again, but I don’t think that would now be on.

Hello.  I blogged too soon:


I found out about the forthcoming movie The Children of Huang Shi, at this place, while Googling for images of this man, whose name was George Hogg.  But the bit at the bottom of the Times piece where it says ...

A film inspired by the story, The Children of Huang Shi, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Chow Yun Fat, Radha Mitchell and Michelle Yeoh, and directed by Roger Spottiswoode, will be released in the UK later following a US opening in May

... should have been a bit of a clue.

More about this story, and a picture of the real George Hogg, here.  It would seem that this is not the kind of movie the Americans made in the fifties, about a heroic Christian being persecuted by evil Communists.  This guy appears to have been very much an official Communist hero, or so it would seem.  All of which makes me want to read the book.

Saturday March 08 2008

An ex-minister now admits what everyone else already knew:


Like other ministers, she felt “under pressure to make announcements all the time”.

So she frequently signed news releases announcing, for example, £5m for an anti-bullying initiative without really having the “slightest idea what happened to it”.

Although, on second thoughts, going through the motions of meddling is probably an improvement on actually meddling.

Nick M did not like student politics when he got a close look at it, and found himself venting earlier today, in comment number four here.  Quote:

When I was a postgrad at Leeds my office was just past the science library (and the math smoking spot - which is where the real work occurred) so every morning I walked down red-route (as it was named) and past the ads for assorted types running for student positions.

Now, Leeds and Manchester are quite similar in many ways and I know them both well. Leeds has a problem and it’s a Fozzy Bear of a one. 30000+ students and abysmal rental housing stock. I tried once to get a gaff with an Italian Mech Eng PhD. It was embarrassing. We saw one gaff and a bedroom had been sub-divided with a curtain. Mic said this was something up with which the Milanese would not put. Ironically, at the time, Leeds was flush with having a Harvey Nicks open up and was billing itself as “The Milan of the North”. I was living in a back-to-back opposite a drug dealer (which was handy if the people on the other side were having a “domestic") and they usually were. They regularly got through more plates than a Greek state-wedding. “Milan of the North” - I’ll take that seriously when a certain Italian city bills itself as “The Leeds of the South”.

Yet, what did I see on the ads for the various candidates? Did I see anything about student housing? Did I see anything about crime? Did I hell. I saw a lot of promises to tackle racism and homophobia on campus. Seriously. Now my understanding is that on a university campus you can be queer as Christmas and nobody gives a toss. Can you imagine my outrage as I saw all these posters walking in from a gaff that would have disgraced the 1930s? In one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the country with a hang-over from having spent the previous night in Queen’s Court which had just been voted Britain’s top gay bar? It was a going away do for a gentleman who preferred the company of gentleman. I knew the lad quite well and had frequently seen him walking hand in hand with his beau on Leeds campus. In three years he never got even insulted.

There are parts of England where they will kill you for holding the hand of another man. This was not a problem on Leeds campus though I wouldn’t rate your chances in South Shields on a Saturday night. How demented are these people to try and solve non-problems when the were very real ones to deal with right in front of them?

“These people” being the people who now rule Britain.  There’s more in the original, about the man who taught Nick M’s wife Russian grammar.

Blog and learn, and I’m thinking maybe that’s a whole new category there.

Did you know that a large percentage of snowflakes have bacteria in the middle of them?


Atmospheric scientists have long known that under most conditions moisture needs something to cling to in order to condense into snow and rain. A study published Friday in the journal Science shows a large share of those so-called nucleators turn out to be bacteria that can affect plants.

“Bacteria are by far the most active ice nuclei in nature,” said Brent C. Christner, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University.

Christner and colleagues sampled snow from Antarctica, France, Montana and Canada’s Yukon and found that as much as 85% of the nuclei were bacteria, he said. The bacteria finding was most common in France, followed by Montana and the Yukon, and was even present in Antarctica.

That strikes me as the kind of thing that kids might enjoy.  Maybe I’ll try it on Smart Boy next Tuesday night, and see what he thinks about this.  It’s certainly a good excuse for a picture.

I found the link in among these.

Friday March 07 2008

More reaction to this, about a Californian court deciding that home-schoolers must have “credentials”, from Rand Simberg:

What a world. Sometimes, when I look at the educational system here - primary, secondary, college - I wonder if we really won the Cold War.

He quotes James Lileks ("home schooling Bolsheviks"), who also says this about what daughter Gnat is getting up to these days:

Had a long conversation with (G)Nat today about whether all life on earth will be destroyed soon by pollution. She’s in an Earth Day play. The premise is basic: massive global storms (just like those in Star Trek IV!) alert the animals that Nature is sending out its final warning, so the animals tell the kids we have to stop doing ... something, and start being nice to the Earth. (Animals and children being equal in moral purity.) It ends with a hymn to nature that makes the Romantic poets look like strip-mining company CEOs. I wondered whether it made her worry, and she said it didn’t, not really. Then we had a talk about why it’s bad to pollute, and why you shouldn’t litter, and the other sensible things.

Home beats school there, wouldn’t you say?  Lileks continues:

And I know it’s a leap of logic, but: if you don’t have the constitutional right to home school your kids, I wonder if you have the constitution right to raise them at all. You might be doing it all wrong, you know. I’m guessing you lack credentials at that, too.

Don’t give them ideas.

For many this is a terribly difficult case:

A court hearing has begun over a Jewish school’s admissions policy, which may have implications for at least another 20 schools and other organisations.

The JFS in north-west London is accused of discriminating against an 11-year-old boy it refused to admit.

He was rejected in favour of “committed atheists” because his mother was not regarded as Jewish, his family’s lawyer told the High Court in London.

For me, it’s easy, from the legal point of view if not the moral or the religious.  The High Court shouldn’t have to bother with this.  The school doesn’t want him and shouldn’t have to take him.

Plus, why would you want your child to attend a school that you are taking to the High Court for being, as you see it, irrational and nasty?

Thursday March 06 2008

This sounds like a good idea:

Students are being offered jobs to stay and work at their schools while taking a university degree course as part of an attempt to encourage those from low-income homes into higher education.

The pioneering project has been running for four years at Monkseaton High School, a comprehensive in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, and is now being offered to schools, colleges and employers nationwide.

The scheme allows students to work as laboratory technicians, classroom assistants or computer software managers at schools, earning up to £6,000 a year while studying for an Open University degree. Some believe it is a major innovation in attracting young people from disadvantaged communities to opt for higher education as it offers the chance to earn and learn, rather than leave school for a job, or enter full-time higher education.

Like I say, people are thinking.

Remember that scene in Notting Hill where the fat guy is commiserating with Julia Roberts about how badly film actors are paid and asks her how much she got paid for her last movie and she says fifteen million dollars?  Course you do.

imageAnyway, I heard a similar bit of dialogue, for real, at the big annual Libertarian Alliance shindig at the National Liberal Club, last November.  Present were me (of course or I wouldn’t have heard it), LA and lots of other things Supremo Tim Evans, and Jan Carnogursky, the former Prime Minister of Slovakia, whom Tim used to work for, way back when Carnogursky was Prime Minister and when Communism was unravelling.

We were talking about education, and about how hard it is to get independent educational enterprises going, in the world today.  At which point Carnogursky said he was involved in starting up a University in Slovakia.  Oh, said Tim sympathetically, that must be very difficult to do.  How many students have you managed to get so far?  Tim (and I) had in mind perhaps twenty, thirty, fifty, ... a hundred maybe?  Some number like that.  The answer was, as I recall: three thousand.  Thoughtful silence from Tim and me.

It was this recent posting at Jackie D’s (Antoine Clarke worked for Carnogursky also) that reminded me of this conversation, which I should have passed on here at the time it happened.  Alas I haven’t been able to find out anything about what or where this university might be, but I definitely remember that it is doing well.

On the face of it, this is outrageous:

Parents who lack teaching credentials cannot educate their children at home, according to a state appellate court ruling that is sending waves of fear through California’s home schooling families.

Says the headline above this apparent abomination:

Ruling seen as a threat to many home-schooling families

I love that “seen as”.

Wednesday March 05 2008

My friend Mariana Bell was born and raised in Romania, and between 1962 and 1979 she had a Romanian education.  This morning I recorded a conversation with her about what that was like. 


That picture was taken just after we’d finished talking.  Our conversation lasted just over 15 minutes, and I learned a lot in a short time, not just about how things were but about how education in Romania is now developing and changing (and deteriorating).  Towards the end, there was a brief phone interruption, which necessitated some editing, but it’s no problem.

I hope to record many more such conversations with many different people, about all aspects of education, including further conversations with Mariana.  She now lives in France, having before that lived in England (a fact which she touched on at the end), and because she takes such a keen interest in the education her children are now receiving in France she is also well placed to talk about how education operates there.

It’s something of an irony that in the quite long list of categories I have chosen to label this posting with, “Sovietisation” is not included, even though Romania itself was of course thoroughly Sovietised.

Tuesday March 04 2008

Okay, this may not be what you expect at an “education blog”, but I consider it highly relevant.

I’ve just done a posting at Samizdata, a cut-and-paste piece asking: Is nanotechnology about to deliver unlimited solar power? This is not a topic I have previously been greatly interested in, but something about the combination of the extravagant nature of the predictions in the article I based my piece on plus the alleged grandeur of the persons making the predictions got me excited.  Very soon, the Samizdata commentariat will be telling me and the universe whether there is any truth to these prophecies of un-doom, and expatiating on the science and technology involved.


That picture from here.

My point for here is: I will learn.

Publishing something like this, even if all I’ve done is ask if there’s any truth in what some other people are saying, is like buying a share.  That being why the phrase “buying into” is often used to describe such writing.  In a few years time, in the now rather implausible event that solar power advances even approximately as prophecied, I’ll be able to say: I wrote about that!  On Samizdata!  (My version of the mass media.) Now that I have bought into this, I am that much more interested.  Further solar power news will catch my attention.  I have added the place where I read all this to my personal sidebar, so that I can in due course read more there about the fabulous future, if that’s what it proves to be, of solar power.  Michael Jennings will send me links to more such stuff, and I will follow them, and read, and learn.

Blog and learn.  Blog and learn.

Snuffleupagus (maybe someone can explain to me about that name) has been in deepest, darkest Jamaica, visiting her parents, and also one of its most dangerous schools.  She was warned to stay away, but went anyway:

So I ask her to tell me about a time when a child did something really bad. She takes a deep breath, and I pull my chair closer to her desk, waiting to hear the delectable details. ‘Well,’ she starts, pausing as if to catch her breath, ‘once I told a boy to sit down, and ...’ I lean in closer. ‘And what ..? I ask, as if in a Roman coliseum, waiting for the gore. She whispers ‘He said he didn’t want to sit down.’ Her eyes open wide as she sits back, satisfied that she has shocked me to the core.

‘What’s it like at your school in inner city London?’ She asks.

I smile. ‘Much the same.’ I lie. What else can I say? I’m simply astonished.

Having spent the morning with them, I thank the Principal for having me. She shakes my hand vigorously, smiling from ear to ear. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ she squeals, ‘thank you for not being too intimidated to come.’

If those teachers came to London, she says, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

Before that, Snuffy (as I believe her friends call her) visited a non-dangerous Jamaican school, and that is vividly described also.

Monday March 03 2008

As I’ve been saying ad nauseam, the Eee PC is great for little kids.  (Scroll down to where it says: ANOTHER UPDATE.) And see also this earlier posting.

The BBC reports:

There are plans to open 20 more university campuses and higher education centres in England, providing places for 10,000 students.

So, twenty different gangs of people are coincidentally trying to build twenty separate universities, and a journalist has spotted the trend?

No such luck:

The government is to invite proposals to create new and expanded institutions in the next six years.

We have a new Prime Minister, and he is throwing money about like there’s no tomorrow.

Says David Willetts for the Conservatives:

“It is incoherent for ministers to commit to new higher education centres while cutting money from part-time students and adult learners.”

Since when did that ever stop a politician?  But my guess is, it’s actually very coherent indeed.  My guess is: the money is mostly coming (a lot - quietly) from safe Conservative seats and (a bit - even more quietly) from safe Labour seats, and going (a lot - very noisily) to unsafe Labour seats.

Sunday March 02 2008

Last Tuesday evening was also very pleasing to me because of what I did in the second hour.  In the first hour, remember, I taught Small Boy.  In the second hour, I taught Smart Boy.  Soon I will have forgotten about this myself, and I want that not to happen, so I need to write all this that follows before more teaching scrubs it from my brain.

Smart Boy had been making no secret of his desire to spend time with me, rather than with the maths teacher, Mr Vora.  The Mr Vora problem is not Mr Vora.  He is a exemplary maths teacher, and at least as companionable a person as me.  But Mr Vora teaches a batch of several children all at once, and Smart Boy really is smart, compared to some of those children.  He tends to sit at the back, oscillating between quiet resentment and rather theatrical demonstrations of lack of interest in sums that he considers somewhat beneath him.  But even more fundamentally, Smart Boy likes the undivided attention of whoever he is with, and from Mr Vora, inevitably, he does not get it.  From me, he would.  From me, last Tuesday, he did, and showed every sign of appreciating it very much. He was very happy to pay attention carefully to whatever I wanted to say him, provided I payed him the same compliment, as I was happy to do.  In other words, Smart Boy and I had a good conversation.

I began by showing off my favourite proof of Pythagoras’s Theorem.  This is the one where instead of having one right angled triangle in the middle, with squares attached to each side, you have four identical right angled triangles arranged to form a square with another square gap in the middle.  Through the magic of the internet, I am able to tell you that it is Proof number 4, here.  And moments ago, I was able to learn of an even more cunning Pythagoras proof, namely Proof number 5.  (I love the internet.)

Well, Smart Boy wasn’t that impressed by my Pythagoras-ing.  Nor was he that excited by me telling him what little I knew of pi, i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, or whatever it is, which in any case he also knew.  I told him that pi r squared is the area of a circle, but I couldn’t prove it, and that is now my homework.  I don’t know quite how that happened, but it did.

Then we got onto the subject of averages.  How would you work out the average height of all the children here?  That’s right, you add up all the heights of all the children and divide that by the number of children.

Then I took a chance, hoping merely that he would indulge me.  I found myself talking about Don Bradman’s last innings as an international cricketer, which is a story about an average.  What happened was that Bradman went out to bat, at the Oval right here in London, in 1948, to play what turned out to be his very last test match innings.  It was only the first Australian innings, but they were already heading for an almost certain innings victory by the time Bradman went in, so both Bradman and everyone else present were pretty sure that this would be Bradman’s very last innings.  At that point, his test match batting average was just over a hundred, which is about thirty or forty more than any other international cricketer then or since, which shows you just what a supreme batsman Bradman was.  This is a far more telling number, for instance, than the mere total number of runs Bradman scored, which has often been surpassed since, because in those days there were far fewer test matches per year, and there was also the small matter of World War II getting in the way of everyone’s careers, including Bradman’s.  So anyway, Bradman goes in to bat, and all he had to do to walk off the pitch and into the history books with a batting average that remained more than a hundred was to make just four runs in his final innings, and, of course, it was pretty confidently anticipated that he would do a lot better than that, perhaps making yet another hundred.  He did make a hundred in the previous game at Leeds.  173 not out, as I recall.

Guess how many runs Bradman made in that last innings of his.  If you know, you know, but if you don’t, I’ll tell you.  Zero.  He was out second ball.  For a duck.  It was the only seriously memorable thing that a certain England spin bowler by the name of Eric Hollies ever did.  Bradman bowled Hollies 0.  And Bradman’s average was forever set in the aspic of cricket statistical history at 99.94.

So, I told this story to Smart Boy, my point being that here was one average that was truly dramatic, and this time I had his attention completely.  This was the kind of thing he wanted!  I don’t know why exactly.  Perhaps he liked the arcane nature of the story, the fact that most of the people he would later tell it to (to prove to them how smart he is) wouldn’t know anything about it.  (Smart Boy’s ancestors all come from a very non-cricket country.) Pythagoras and pi and all that stuff was too routine for his purposes.  All maths teachers would know about this, and many maths pupils.  But not many would know about Don Bradman’s batting average, and how it was nearly a hundred, but not quite.  Whatever his motives were, he wrote down the name “Don Bradman” and added some notes to remind him of the key facts of the case, and declared that he would chase it up on the internet. 

Then we talked about Shakespeare.  Smart Boy is doing Macbeth at school.  I did Macbeth at school too, so we had plenty to talk about.  Miss Maxwell, the school boss came by right at the end of our “lesson”.  I said: “We’ve been talking about Shakespeare.” Would she approve?  (No mention was made of Don Bradman.) For a long moment Miss Maxwell was silently inscrutable.  Then she said: “I recommend Othello.” Phew.  Cue for me to show off my knowledge not only of Shakespeare but of Giuseppe Verdi, then pronounced with superbly Italianate relish by Smart Boy.  Verdi, I said, wrote an “opera” (cue further explanation of that) called “Otello”, that being how the Italians say Othello.

Was this teaching?  Was this education?  Should I instead have been dinning more complicated sums into Smart Boy’s head than he was used to?  Were Smart Boy’s parents getting their money’s worth?  I think that it was education, and that they were getting their money’s worth, although they might dissent.  My meta-lesson, so to speak, that I have been trying to convince Smart Boy of ever since I first talked with him, is that he doesn’t need other people to ask complicated show-offy questions to and to learn complicated show-offy answers from or for.  The world now, especially the world now, is full of stuff you can just dive into.

And if he’d rather ask me complicated questions, and gouge obscure stuff out of me, rather than out of a mere book or a mere computer, well, I love that.  The quality in a pupil that I most value when I’m teaching is that he’s driving the agenda forward.  He’s the one supplying the energy.  He’s the king and I am but the respectful counsellor.  He’s running his own life, and I’m just helping.  When I “taught”, if that’s what it was, Smart Boy, that is exactly how it was.

Or, to put it another way, my fantasies about what truly consenting education should be like - which in that Small Boy posting I oh-so-subtly implied are an impossible dream - are in fact anything but.

Times Online reports on Dr Laura Grant:

She’s television’s hot new find, a 28-year-old beauty with a brain who they are billing as “the Nigella of science”, though she’s eaten fewer cakes. What the two women have in common is a passion for their subject and allure. Given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with Grant. She’s knowledgeable but not intimidating, serious but happy. “I have a light-hearted approach to myself,” she says cheerfully.

As she excitedly describes blowing up a car, purportedly to test the strength of Kevlar, the polymer often used in bulletproof vests (a sheet of it was in the car’s boot), it’s easy to see why the teenagers who she was tasked with enthusing about science were won over. ...


... The Big Experiment hits the small screen on Thursday, the first of a six-part series. Method: take a class of underachieving kids from east London, impress them with whizzes and bangs till they have your attention, then fast-track them through science GCSE. Results: teenagers who are more confident and interested in learning. Conclusion: science can make a difference. Easy-peasy. It’s Top Gear meets Jamie’s Kitchen. It’s visually entertaining, it’s socially intriguing, it’s informative. It’s good telly. Beyond that, could we learn from it?

It’s on the Discovery Channel, which I don’t subscribe to.  Maybe I should.  But with luck it will all show up on a free digital channel of some kind in due course, and on DVD for sure.

Saturday March 01 2008

Who’d be a teacher?  A proper one, I mean.


One of my form turned up yesterday wearing a ‘fancy’ belt. We don’t have a strict guideline on the maximum thickness of belts but if it looks remotely fashionable then it’s probably not allowed. What I don’t understand is these wide belts. I’m not an expert on such things so stand to be corrected but as far as I can tell they don’t actually have the property of holding up trousers as they don’t appear to be connected to anything. But if a girl says their trousers will fall down without it then it’s not something I’m willing to put to the test. Answers on a postcard please.

Or leave a comment at his place.  And yes, he’s a he, aged 24:

I am in my second year of ‘proper’ teaching now and the third year of this blog. My favourite things about teaching are the holidays, the financial incentives and the encouraging ratio of male to female teachers. Oh and working with kids and inspiring young minds and all that.

Like I say, a proper teacher.  He’s not in it for the money, but when money’s tight, a little bit more makes a big difference.

imageAmerica again, and I’ve (only) just found out that the U.S. Secretary of Education is called Margaret Spellings.

Actually, I think that people with the appropriate name for something do often end up doing it.  It prays on their minds.  They gravitated towards it, sort of automatically.  That, or they make a point of being or doing the complete opposite, for the same reason.