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Category archive: Real life

Wednesday July 16 2008

Johnathan Pearce wants the child labour laws relaxed:

It seems to me that in part of the discussion about what “should be done” about feral kids armed with knives, there ought to be a recognition that one of the main problems that young people face in and outside school is boredom. And that can be cured, possibly, by working. We have to overcome our strange squeamishness over the employment of minors in actual jobs. I think that the rules and regulatory burdens should be relaxed so that apprenticeships become much easier for an employer to provide. I think some, if not all, of the young tearaways who are so worrying policymakers might actually feel proud of having a job, of earning money, of being able to brag about this to their lazier friends.

Commenter Walter Boswell adds this:

The importance of that simple lesson that hard work equals money and money equals more independence cannot be emphasised enough.


Wednesday June 11 2008

Ben Goldacre, writes about this (which I already reported here):

An early factual claim in Reform’s document is simple: “about 40% of mathematics graduates enter financial services”. This - we are invited to agree - is a good thing. The report’s reference for 40% is a simple link to prospects.ac.uk, which isn’t very informative as it’s rather a large website. Chasing through the pages there, you will find “What Do Graduates Do?”, and then the maths page. There were 4070 maths graduates in their sampling frame of 2006. Only 2010 of those, however, are in UK employment (1.5% are working abroad, and the rest are studying for a higher degree, or a teaching qualification, or unemployed, or unavailable for employment, and so on).

Of those 2010 - not 4070 - 37.9% are indeed working as “Business and Financial Professionals and Associate Professionals”. So correct me if I’m wrong – I’m always eager for that to happen – but by my maths 2010 x 0.379 = 761.79, and that divided by 4070 = 0.1871, but let’s round up like the angry maths profs did and say that about 20% of maths graduates enter financial services. Not 40%. I call this “arithmetic”. For a bunch of people complaining about the substitution of woolly modern notions like “relevance” and “applied maths” in place of high end mathematical techniques, they don’t make a particularly good advert for their own skill set.

I’ve added the link in that.

After criticising what he believes to be other arithmetical errors, and errors of other kinds, in the report, Goldacre ends by saying:

I’m happy to agree that maths is economically useful, that maths exams are dumbing down, that people avoid difficult school subjects, and that humanities graduates who think maths is uncool are bores. What I would like is someone who can be bothered to sit down and reinforce my prejudices without perpetrating crass errors of overinterpretation and getting the basic arithmetic wrong. I’ve never fully seen the point of them, but I suspect that’s what thinktanks are there for. Again, I may be wrong.

No, I think that’s about right.  Think tanks exist to supply facts to support your preferred prejudices. They translate reasonable opinions, held for other reasons to do with your overall worldview, into pseudo-deductions from only the facts of the particular matter being dealt with.  The more honest ones are also honest about their prejudices, and don’t only do this.  The seriously bullshit ones do nothing else.  (See this, by me.)

Sunday May 11 2008

This working boy did the school’s IT.  But this working boy, also in IT, didn’t go to school.  Which didn’t, says the story, hold him back.  (The way it usually does?)

He said: “There aren’t very many jobs for teenagers around except washing-up at hotels or chopping chips for a chippy.

“I wanted to start up my own business doing something that I really enjoyed, was good at, and that I could fit into my free time, at home - and hopefully I will be able to earn some money at the same time.”

There are five comments on this story in the Bridport News, all of them very positive.

Linked to by Carlotta.

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.

Monday May 05 2008

Here.  Quote:

Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right, though in different ways. Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

I am certainly a romantic in the sense that I believe that millions of children could be doing massively better than they do at school.  But I do not hope to see “educational” achievement blossoming.  Just achievement.

Murray’s point is that many are of limited “intellectual ability”, and maybe they are.  But many non-intellectuals do indeed flourish, as soon as they leave school and get stuck into real life.  This is because in real life, intellectual cleverness is not, to put it mildly, the only virtue that matters.

To repeat something which I suspect you are going to read a lot more at this blog if you stay with it: good education does not mean mere exam success, higher academic standards, etc.  It means what you need to learn to have a good life.  And for many, the best way to start learning about real life is to start real life.

Quote again:

The parallels between the trajectory of the Soviet Union’s attempt to reform its economy and the trajectory of the federal government’s attempts to reform the public education system are striking. By the mid-1980s, Soviet leaders knew that they had to introduce supply and demand into the economy, but they couldn’t bring themselves to try honest-to-God capitalism, so they tried to decentralize decision-making and permit some elements of a market economy while retaining central price controls and government ownership of the means of production. The reforms were based on premises about human nature that were patently wrong. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the educational romantics - and George W. Bush is the Percy Bysshe Shelley of educational romantics - knew that public school systems everywhere had become bureaucratically top-heavy and that many inner-city schools were no longer functional. They knew that the billions of federal money spent on upgrading education for disadvantaged children had produced no demonstrable improvements. But they thought they could fix the system. Bush’s glasnost was to implement accountability through measurement of results by test scores. Bush’s perestroika was a mishmash of performance standards and fragments of a market economy in schools, while retaining public funding of the schools and government control over the enforcement of the new standards. ...

Amen.  But, the conclusion to be drawn from this is not to be satisfied with the Western educational equivalent of the Brezhnev regime.  The conclusion, which Murray hints at obliquely but does not spell out: capitalism for all!  The real thing.

It worked and works for adults.  Freedom for adults – all adults - had and continues to have exactly the kind of transformational effects that anti-romantics regard as delusional.  Yet they happened and happen.  So, why not try the same thing with children?

If the modern electronic industry (in the form of things like the thing I’m typing this into) had not happened, most anti-romantics would say that it was utterly impossible.  Yet capitalism routinely extracts extraordinary achievements from very ordinary people indeed.  The subtitle of Murray’s article is: “On requiring every child to be above average.” Under rip-roaring capitalism, just about every adult is “above average”, by the standards of pre-capitalist times, and by the standards of the still severely non-capitalist places now.

Maybe children can’t do freedom.  Maybe, by their nature (nature again), they can’t handle it.  But we could at least make a start with adolescents.  We could at least liberate the big children, the children who aren’t really children at all.

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.

Friday May 02 2008

Violins and Starships Lynn links to this excellent piece by a double bass teacher.  It starts by being about how long lessons should be, but he tangents off into a discussion of his whole approach to teaching.

With one-on-one music teaching the consent principle applies from both directions, or it damn well should.  If Jason Heath can’t be doing with a particular pupil (who, for instance, refuses to practice) then they’re out.  If a pupil can’t take the nagging and the tyranny, they can leave.  Excellent.  But he can be a little more interesting than that.  He can be a “musical guide”:

imageI realize that a particular student loves music and loves playing the instrument, but through lack of motivation or lack of available time, simply doesn’t progress. With these students, however, I see a genuine love for music and a person who will be likely to listen to music, play in an amateur orchestra, attend concerts, and enroll their children in musical programs in a decade or two. Over time I’ve learned to spot these kind of students, and with them, I teach them about music, with the double bass as a sonic conduit. I’d love it if they started practicing (and many do end up working hard at it), but I see a genuine interest in this art form, and I teach them about the fundamentals of music and give them some elementary training on the instrument.

Anticipating complaints from fellow professionals about that approach, Heath continues:

Look - we’re not all destined to become concert musicians. In fact, we don’t want everyone and their dog to be a concert musician. But what we do need are lovers of music, future patrons and enthusiasts. And if that “nice bass teacher” that a non-practicing student had back in high school helped to nurture that love, then I feel like I did a good job, “standards” or no.

Amen.  One of the most important functions of a teacher, currently rather neglected by the politicians, is to teach people how to enjoy life more than they might otherwise, by instilling not just careers and career-skills but hobbies and hobby-enthusiasms.  To put it another way, education means learning how to spend money, and not just how to make it.  And when you consider how cheap potent music is these days, teaching someone to enjoy music is teaching them how to get a lot more pleasure from not that much more money.

Tuesday April 29 2008

I did some ego-googling today about something else, and discovered that Tim Worstall did a post two months ago about a Samizdata posting I did entitled What use is maths?

Here’s his answer:

I would split the subject into two. For past a certain level, it most certainly is two entirely different disciplines. The first is pure maths. For those who like it (most definitely a subset of the population) it’s glorious, beautiful, engaging, even thrilling. It’s also a description of the universe as it ought to be. Any connection between results and the real world is entirely coincidental: pure mathematicians are the original “yes, that’s all very well in practice, but is it true in theory?” people. Once you climb into the higher realms (well past A levels) the value is like that of poetry. That’s not to say that more practically useful things don’t come from it, of course they do, but it’s not done for its practicality nor will anyone attempting to do it for its practicality do very well at it.

Statistics rather reverses this. Looking at it in one way it’s rather like, yes, well, this is all very well in theory but is it true in practice? We go out and gather real world information and then examine it to see what it tells us. While we might think that x happens because of y, we actually want to find out whether that is true. Or does y happen because of x? Or do they both happen because of a? Or are they simply correlated rather than caused by any of them? And many statistical tests are designed to work out how important our result is.

There’s two things that statistics are extremely useful for. The first is to teach you how to gamble: that’s the root of the whole subject anyway. Seriously, it really started with people trying to work out how to win at cards and dice. Things like the Fibonacci series, which explains things as varied as the placing of petals on a flower and possibly the curling of a wave, also explain the liklihood of throwing a 4, 5 or any other number with a pair of dice. From that we derive ! and so on.

But the second thing it’s extremely useful for is politics. The standard intro by some pantywaist who wants to steal your liberty, livelihood and freedoms is “research has shown that….”. Statistics enables you to evaluate whether research actually has shown (the death rate from Ebola is 80% so yes, clamping down on movements and civil liberties during an outbreak can be justified) or not shown ("the part time pay gap for women is 40%”, no, it isn’t, that’s comparing the wages per hour of part time women against full time men. Comparing part time women against part time men gives us 11%.) the point that the speaker is trying to make.

Which of the two you are good at, which you prefer doing, largely depends upon your mindset at the beginning. I’m not very good at either, but I do struggle to understand the statistics side as well as I can for defending those liberties, livelihoods and freedoms from those who would steal them on spurious grounds seems to me rather important.

There are also comments.

Tim Worstall on the uses of maths
Consent maketh manners
Frank Chalk says that if the army doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger
Bishop Hill on the beneficial impact of charging students to go to university
Joan Rivers spits on education but recommends child labour
The Brazen Careerist on how to get a job you’re not qualified for