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Category archive: Three Rs

Thursday May 08 2008

Earlier this evening I was watching a movie called I Want Candy, which is about a couple of aspiring movie makers who get their start by making a porno movie.  In it there was a scene where a lecturer was lecturing a quite large room full of aspiring movie makers, and I was trying to work out just what was so very, very depressing about it.  It absolutely wasn’t merely the teacher, even though he was indeed very depressingly and very well enacted, by McKenzie Crook.

Then I got it.  Teaching a large number of people how to do a job which only a tiny number of people ever get to actually do for real is an inherently absurd activity.  It just doesn’t make sense.  By far the more intelligent strategy for the teacher, if he actually wants to accomplish anything beyond collecting his pay check in exchange for damn all, is for him to start not by doing much in the way of actual teaching, but instead by searching through all the students in the room, and picking out the one or two who look like they are the least unlikely ones to actually make it to being real movie makers, and concentrate all his efforts on making these few even better.

The usual explanations given for why some things are taught in huge assemblages of students, while other things are taught by teachers on a one-to-one basis are that the nature of the skill requires this, or the student is paying for special attention, or the pupil gets special attention by threatening to wreck the classroom otherwise (whcih amounts to the same idea).  But I think another reason is that teaching someone to get ahead in a fiercely competitive trade or profession just doesn’t make sense any way except one-on-on, very intensely.

The best concert violin students have individual teachers.  The best aspiring athletes have individual coaches.  It’s not the nature of the skill that demands this.  It is the ruthlessly competitive nature of the field that the pupils aspire to enter.  The best violin teachers don’t teach vast throngs of violinists.  They teach a very select few, and lavish tremendously detailed attention on these few.

If someone is teaching a highly competitive trade to a large throng, the chances are that neither he nor his pupils are very good.  If the teacher was any good, he’d pick a few potential winners.  If a pupil was any good, he’d find a better teacher.

If there was a large demand for people who could play the violin really, really well, on a scale approaching the demand for people who are merely literate and numerate, then violin playing would be taught in large classes, just like literacy and numeracy.

In the past, when the demand for literacy and numeracy was not nearly so great, these things were also taught one-to-one.

This has been a thinking-aloud posting, and it may not be right.

Sunday May 04 2008

Yesterday morning I did my first stint of teaching at the Civitas school in Hammersmith, Hammersmith Saturday.  I am not entirely sure whether my colleagues think I am making much of a contribution to their combined efforts, but no doubt a way would have been found to tell me not to come to Hammersmith had they thought it would be a nuisance.  So, I proceed on the assumption that what I am doing is appreciated.  When I helped out for a couple of mornings at a recent half term school, they gave me (as I think I may have mentioned here before) a box of chocolates, so I must be doing something right.  I could have done more at Kings Cross Supplementary, but teaching also at a different school (with all its compare-and-contrast possibilities) appealed more.

Once again I was teaching one-on-one, first with Twin Girl.  Twin Girl is identical to her identical twin sister, Twin Girl, so I am afraid I cannot tell you which Twin Girl I was teaching, but after early protestations against having been separated out, from Twin Girl and from all the other children in her group, for a scary new ordeal, the Twin Girl that I taught seemed reasonably happy about it all.  I checked out her 3R skills, trying without offence to correct all errors that I observed.  Then we did some map reading.  Twin Girl duly found here way, via the big index at the back, to the street where Hammersmith Saturday is located.  She also found Nigeria and Arizona, which are big places in her family’s history, because her family started out in Nigeria and then lived in Arizona for a while, before coming here.

More memorable for me was the second session I did, with Law Boy, whom I call Law Boy simply because, after the usual 3R ice-breaking routines, he revealed that he had in mind, perhaps, to be a lawyer.  However, he didn’t seem to have a very clear idea of what a lawyer actually does, confusing it rather with being a policeman.  So, I gave him a lecture on and around these subjects, concentrating on criminal law, because it is more dramatic.  Here are the lecture notes, which I made a point this time of photo-ing before presenting them to him, so I could show the photo to you people:


Click to get it bigger and more legible.

As you can see, a lot of portentous ground was raced over.  The list of ways the police might investigate a crime includes several of Law Boy’s suggestions, written down by him.  The court room dramas on the right are mostly me.

My belief about teaching is that the basic tools of our culture, alluded to with that common phrase the “Three Rs”, are often now skipped over, resulting in lasting confusion to many pupils who have been dragged towards more complicated spellings and constructions and sums before they are comfortable with the easier stuff.  But I also believe that eyes are not lifted often enough to the far horizons, to the matter of what life could and should be like, and how this or that pupil might one day make a great life as an adult.  There is rather too much obsessing in schools about intermediate matters, so to speak, like quadratic equations and possessive pronouns, and with answering questions about such things in exams.  But there is more to living a good life than merely embarking on the adult bit of it armed with some exam results.  It’s not that these things don’t matter and aren’t worth doing.  But they make a whole lot more sense if reasons for caring about and worrying about them are also alluded to from time to time.

And it really doesn’t take much in the way of 3R expertise to start scanning the far horizons.  I mean, how hard is it to spell “law”, and get a rough idea of what it means?  Or “jury”?  Or “judge”?  And why should a discussion of laws and juries and judges wait until children are teenagers and they first come up against the law when policemen, perhaps rather rudely, tell them about it.  Contrariwise, I was able to wave my finger at all that work that criminal detectives have to do, and say: “That’s full of the 3Rs.  Being a policeman isn’t just about being strong and rough and tough and courageous.  It also involves lots of reading and writing and arithmetic.” And for lawyers, life is all about getting to grips with such clevernesses.  Physical toughness and roughness has almost nothing to do with it.

Law Boy is the quiet thoughtful type, and also polite.  Towards the end I became worried that I was boring him, and that he was merely waiting in a trance for this baffling foolishness to end.  “Am I boring you?” I asked.  “Oh no”, said Law Boy.  “I’m thinking.” Such moments make it all worthwhile.  (And being able to write about it here, for me, doubles the pleasure.)

From where I sat, my central lesson to Law Boy was that it is not enough for the police to decide that somebody is guilty of a crime.  Too much hinges on whether that is true for us to take their word for it.  We can’t be sending innocent people to prison for a decade.  Thus, law courts.  Thus “BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT”.  What did Law Boy learn?  I don’t know, but I trust: something.

The Giving them the paper at the end procedure never seemed to me to make more sense than it did with these particular bits of paper, and there were several more.  It helps that there is now the Internet.  If Law Boy is inclined, he can type all those mysterious words (Solicitor?  Barrister?  Jury?  Forensic?) into the Great Filing Cabinet In The Sky and learn ten times more about it all than I could tell him.  If he is inclined.

Tuesday April 29 2008

Michael J. Lewis, in the course of writing this:

It is often said that great achievement requires in one’s formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others. ...

Food for thought, but ...  I say: choose your own fetters.  Be your own stern taskmaster, or choose a stern taskmaster whose fetters appeal to you.  Just because fetters have their uses, that’s no excuse for enforcing, unasked, any particular set of fetters that any particular teacher happens to be waving around.  The 3Rs are just about the only universally valid fetters I can think of in my culture, but again, that doesn’t mean children have to be forced to put them on.  If they’re so great, can’t they be persuaded?  Won’t the instant rewards of putting on the “fetters” (which means they aren’t really fetters at all) persuade acceptance (ditto)?

Sunday April 13 2008

Yes, get yourself a degree in Tesco studies:

DEGREES designed to widen higher education are to become available from Tesco.

The supermarket chain is to offer its own qualification in retail management, including the arts of display design, special offers and efficient shelf stacking. Teenagers may soon be able to study vocational courses to A-level standard at McDonald’s, a scheme announced in January, before going to Tesco for their degree.

The Tesco FD(A) (Foundation Degree (Arts)) is to be launched this month and will be offered to other retailers who can adapt it.

Manchester University are helping out.

Coincidentally, I was in my local Tesco this afternoon, and took a photograph which included (after much cropping and photo-enhancing to enable anything to be read) this:


Here‘s more blurb on this.  In its emphasis on practising easy stuff until more difficult stuff becomes easy also, rather than busting your head against sums which are too hard for you to do easily, it sounds a lot like Kumon.  When I helped out at a Kumon Centre, I remember thinking (and blogging) to the effect that they ought to comuterise their stuff, but probably won’t because they are too keen on keeping control of everything.  Looks like Professor Kageyama is stealing a march on Professor Kumon.  However, it only seems to be available for Nintendo.

The big “11” means that this is their eleventh most popular disc on sale.  Of any sort, I think.

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.

Thursday February 28 2008

Last Tuesday, I went on one of my weekly expeditions to Kings Cross to help out with the teaching at one of the Supplementary Schools that Civitas organises there every week.  We all - four teachers of whom I am the most junior, and about twenty five or so children - get there just before 5.30 pm, and we all leave just after 7.30 pm, there being a rather spartan community centre in a rather nice little housing estate just to the north of the big railway station.  I walk through the concourse of the railway station and along the right-most of its long platforms on my way from the tube station to the community centre, and back again afterwards, which are pleasing things to do.  Something about that vast Victorian roof elevates the spirit, and I’ve retained my small boy’s love for trains.

The routine that has become established for me is that for the first hour, my job is to teach Small Boy.

Teaching Small Boy last Tuesday was a pleasure, first because he was a little more biddable and obedient than usual.  I don’t like bossing children around, and am consequently very bad at it.  In my fantasy world, children would learn for the sheer joy of it, rather than being nagged by parents and teachers to learn.  Magically, the children in Brian World would be eager to learn just the sorts of things that we adults wish them to learn.  They would badger us to help them learn to read, and once they had done so, they would devour knowledge of all (virtuous) kinds, from books, from the internet, by attending lectures and tutorials given by scientists and scholars and men and women of action of all kinds, all the while keeping us informed of their self-educational triumphs and of their movements, and eagerly listening when we advised them about their next self-imposed tasks.  They would spend a little of their time playing computer games (of a deliberately educational sort – which now exist, apparently), and they would spend a little time watching television (again, to learn things).  But they would not spend all day and every day doing these things, thereby becoming zombies unable to sleep because hypnotised all day.

Meanwhile, back here on earth, my job at King’s Cross for the first hour is to nag Small Boy into learning to read and write.  This is mercifully easy, because he is only about five and although not very frightened of me, he is frightened of his mother, who would be told if he was too recalcitrant.  We read through the Butterfly Book - that is to say, he reads while I point at the words and stop him if he makes any errors and make him read it again right.  Small Boy then does whatever writing he chooses to do, my only rules being that he has to write something and that it has to be as neat as possible.  While he does that, I wander around in the rest of the big room, looking at what some of the other children are doing in the other three classes, trying not to be too annoying, and trying to learn about how that teaching is being done.  I then return to Small Boy and complain about his writing, politely but informatively you understand.

In among all that, Small Boy and I talk about things, as a sort of reward to us both for the diligence with which we both mostly do what we are supposed to be doing.  This time, I gave him a physics lesson.  I showed him how light that looks blue from indoors, surrounded by yellow indoor light, looks grey when you go outside.  We went outside so that I could show him.  Nobody seemed to think this was strange.  If they did, they didn’t say so.  (Actually, the light still looked rather blue outside, so it was actually not a very successful lesson from my point of view.  It turned into one of those Teachers Can Be Wrong Too lessons.  Can’t win ‘em all.)

What pleased me most about my session with Small Boy last Tuesday was that, whatever it is that I and all his other teachers are doing, it is clearly working.  He now knows words which he definitely didn’t know when I started with him and he reads more fluently.  His writing is definitely improving.  He is, in short, one way or another, being successfully educated.

Saturday January 05 2008

Snapped today, as I wandered about London SW1:


It’s above this.

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


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

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

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

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