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Category archive: Science

Sunday July 13 2008

Boston scientists reckon they know a bit more about autism:

Researchers from Boston have discovered six new genes implicated in autism. The genes normally make new brain connections needed for learning, but their absence or silence apparently places them among many mutations that lead to the devastating disorder, which is marked by trouble with communication and social interaction.


“People think of genetic diseases as immutable and untreatable,” Walsh said in an interview. “Studies like ours and others give more hope we might not need to replace genes one by one, but find other ways of activating the genes that might be silent.”

Later in the report comes this rather chilling sentence.

The researchers studied large Middle Eastern families in which cousins had married and the incidence of autism was high.

That’s not an experiment anybody would be able to contrive otherwise.  It’s good to know that cousin-marrying can sometimes be helpful.

Thursday July 03 2008

If it is true that higher education is now and remains potentially a big export earner for Britain, and it is true, then stories like this won’t help one little bit:

Two French students have been found dead with multiple stab wounds in an East London flat, it was confirmed last night.

A double murder inquiry has been launched after the bodies of the two men, believed to be in their twenties, were discovered on Sunday, when firefighters were called to deal with a fire at the address in Sterling Gardens, New Cross.

A police source said the pair had been “horrifically murdered” adding that it was believed they may have been tortured before being killed and their flat set alight.

This was all over the early evening news today, complete with pictures.  It seems to have been a robbery that went wrong, by which I mean even more wrong.

It’s somewhat off topic for this blog, but I say: allow non-crims to be armed!

It may yet happen.  London, full of disarmed non-crims and armed crims, is rapidly becoming like New York used to be but is now so conspicuously not, a “crime capital”.  Any decade now, something might just give.  Or, to use the language of this blog, the lesson might be learned.

Tuesday July 01 2008

Indeed.  The Bishop takes a bash at eco-brainwashing in a (private) school:

Not if we should recycle, or when we should recycle, but why we should recycle. The person who wrote this is clearly intellectually challenged. Do they really believe that it is always best to recycle? No matter what level of resources is required? Who would want their children taught by someone who believed such nonsense?

If he can teach reading, writing, grammar, comprehension, manners, then maybe yes.  And perhaps yes because they also want recycling to be taught also.  The market will decide.  The Bishop’s most pertinent complaint is that the teacher didn’t capitalise a film title.

A national religion (and I do agree that this is that) is a very hard thing to resist.  Next: home-ed by anti-environmentalists.

More science teaching woe.  That’s a Buckingham University report, which I found because it is linked to from here.  Can’t afford physics teachers.  Can’t keep ‘em.  Often can’t even get ‘em to apply.

Sunday June 22 2008

As already reported in this earlier posting, I have been reading Nick Cowen’s Civitas pamphlet entitled Swedish Lessons.  It consists of three chapters, the first being about Sweden’s education reforms, the second about Britain’s current educational problems, and the third proposes British solutions.  The chunk that follows is from chapter two, about what’s going wrong with British education.  Things aren’t that bad, says Cowen.  But they’re getting rather worse, and here (pp. 48-52) is one of the reasons:

GCSEs and A-levels, the current official indicators of what makes a good school and what defines a successful pupil, are bad measures of how well pupils are doing.  Yet the government treats exam results as a proxy for school productivity, with the Department for Schools, Children and Families, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) placing primary emphasis on good exam results representing success and achievement. Under this regime the actual skills and abilities of pupils come to be disregarded.

This problem becomes more acute when the interests of pupils come to be directly at odds with the interests of the school as judged by the exam and assessment system.  The continual drive to improve results creates a damaging incentive for schools to find qualifications that are likely to produce good results with the least amount of effort and talent.  General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) taken at the same time as and often in lieu of GCSEs offers perhaps the most widely used ‘loophole’ used to drive up standards on paper while not actually tackling students educational outcomes.  Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research found that thousands of students took courses in these ‘quasi-academic’ subjects, which include science, information and communication technology and business.  However, ‘entry to the more practically-sounding fields is miniscule.  Hospitality and catering, manufacturing, construction, retail and distributive trades, land and environment together account for only 1.2 per cent of the Intermediate GNVQ’. Indeed, over half of all the GNVQs taken are in the single subject, ICT.  Smithers has also noted that the influence these subjects have had on results is significant: ‘from 2001 the proportion achieving five good GCSEs themselves has plateaued at about 50 per cent and the increase [up to 2005] has been through intermediate GNVQs which count as four GCSEs’.  David Brown, a reitred head teacher, calculated that since GNVQs are valued so highly compared to GCSEs, studying the ICT GNVQ was 13 times as effective in boosting a school’s league table position as studying maths.

A-levels have suffered a similar commute to easier subjects that appear to offer improved results for schools.  From 1996 to 2007, the number of A-level entries has increased by nearly 100,000. However, this increase has not been reflected in traditional subjects.  In fact, many have declining numbers of entries: physics, French and German have all registered reductions of more than 4,000, 10,000 and 3,000 respectively.  By contrast, psychology has increased by 30,000; media & film studies by 16,000 and PE by nearly 12,000.

Officially, qualifications in all A-level subjects are worth exactly the same but, as Peter Tymms and Robert Coe of Durham University have demonstrated, some A-level subjects are less demanding than others: ‘It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others.’ Their research found that students with Bs in JSCSE history, economics, geography, English language and literature, sociology and business studies went on to attain C on average in the same subjects at A-level.  However, Coe and Tymms found that those with Bs in GCSE maths, computing, German, French, chemistry, physics and biology were more likely to get Ds at A-level.

The result is not just a case of students themselves choosing easier subjects.  There is evidence that some schools have been actively discouraging pupils from taking subjects that are deemed more challenging and are therefore less ‘safe’ for league table purposes.  An ICM survey commissioned by the Association of Colleges in 2006 showed that 55 per cent of students felt that teachers steer them towards courses in which their school does best, rather than what they needed.

It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term consequences of disregarding challenging subjects will be, but a number of experts have described their fears.  Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has argued that schools are discouraging students from taking maths A-level.  He noted: ‘This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation’s economy.’

David Hart, then general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argued that ‘soft’ subjects may be helping students get into higher education but that ‘in the long term I’m not sure it does very much for their career prospects’.  Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, has also argued that exams present a ‘crazy situation’ in which A-level students are opting for subjects which have ‘poor career prospects’.  In addition, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Education Assessors, has described how history, in particular, is becoming an endangered subject as more students opt for subjects such as media studies and photography.

The irony is that this focus on exam results and regulated assessment is meant to ensure high standards of teaching in all schools, but the flaws in the system have created incentives that act to undermine standards and to direct the efforts of both teachers and pupils in the wrong direction.  Of course, there are still very good teachers and some very good schools in the maintained sector, and there are many successful pupils.  However, the structures and incentives operating at the centre are working against those successful outcomes rather than for them.  It means, for example, that when a school begins to struggle, its first priority is not to concentrate on getting genuinely better outcomes for their pupils, but on creating better outcomes on paper, the ones that are acceptable to the central bureaucracy.

Hence, the very mechanism designed to assure some quality in every school has led, when implemented systematically, to a lower quality of education being generated in practice.

Friday June 20 2008

Professor Michael Reiss writes:

The Ofsted report on science in schools (report, June 17) raises a fundamental question. What happens to young children who start out their school days fascinated by nature, space, dinosaurs and robots? Why are so many of them disillusioned with school science by the time they reach the age of 16?

Teachers are the key to successful education, and specialist knowledge of their subject is the key to inspiring their pupils. However, more students in secondary schools are being taught physics by non-specialist teachers than five years ago and only 2.3 per cent of primary teachers on PGCE courses have studied science, mathematics, technology or engineering to degree level.

Attracting and retaining specialist teachers and ensuring that teachers at all levels can access ongoing professional development in science must be a priority.

Ah yes, a priority.  Presumably what the Professor has in mind is paying more and more money to qualified scientists to persuade them to teach, to keep up with the more and more money that qualified scientists can now get doing other jobs.  But what if the money is duly paid, but the inspired teaching fails to materialise?

To repeat a regular meme here, I suspect that if science teaching ever does revive it will do so as a branch of show business, with vast throngs of people being educated and entertained by a relatively small number of roving millionaire science teacher geniuses, whose DVDs sell by the lorry load to ambitious parents, and even to some children.

I hated school science, and it was the very things that you might think would liven it up, namely “practical” stuff, mucking about with bunsen burners and ancient electrical gadgets, that made it such an ordeal.  I never quite understood what was going on, was never on top of it, and it never seemed at all practical.

Wednesday April 30 2008

I wrote a rather facetious posting at my personal blog yesterday, about exposing children to germs when young, but according to commenter 6000, it’s a more serious subject than I realised:

As a scientist (although not speaking for the whole profession, I’m sure) I think we can safely say that whether it’s the underclasses, dogs or indeed the underclasses’ dogs - mixing with “germs” is a good thing - at least in the long term.

But apparently it now goes even further than just allergies - kids who attend playgroups are less likely to get leukaemia. It’s basically the same theory, but without the hay fever.

Incidentally, Black Death’s causal agent Yersinia pestis ...

I mentioned the Black Death.

... is really just E.coli with teeth. That said, it’s not one of the germs I would choose to expose my child to in order to avoid him sniffing each May. Nor one I would expect him to encounter at his playgroup.

6000 links to this recent BBC story:

Children who attend daycare or playgroups cut their risk of the most common type of childhood leukaemia by around 30%, a study estimates.

Researchers reviewed 14 studies involving nearly 20,000 children, of which 6,000 developed acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

It is thought early infections may help the body fight off the disease.

So this story is actually good news.

Tuesday April 08 2008

Ah, the USA!  How can I ignore it?  This time it’s robots playing basketball.  Talk about the revenge of the nerds.  Geeks making their own mechanical jocks!  Sixty two teams.  Two from the UK! Thank you Instapundit.

Varsity science ed with a difference
Snuffy says don’t blame the teachers
Neil Turok on teaching the best maths students in Africa
Teach better or die!
Bacteria in the middle of snowflakes
Blogging and learning about solar power
Nigella with a PhD
Even higher education
Small Boy is definitely being educated
Talking maths with Michael Jennings
Smart pills
Free physics
The world is getting smarter!