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Category archive: How the mind works

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.

Saturday July 12 2008

Today I was at a party, a very good one as it happens, and as is usual at good parties, what I remember most is the clever conversations I had.  Mostly , of course, I remember the clever things that I myself said, but I do recall the occasional thing said by others, to me.

I found myself talking of Party Questions.  What I mean by Party Questions are all the questions you can ask people at parties that replace the dreaded thing you don’t ask, namely:  What Do You Do?  The reason What Do You Do? is bad question is that Party Questions are supposed to subvert the usual social order, rather than reinforce it.  What Do You Do? plays right into the hand of the winners of the regular daytime game of life.  Oh, I’m the Chairman of Shellmex BP.  I’m Wayne Rooney.  I’m a Big Cheese at the Ministry of Enormous National Importance.  It’s not so much that nobody wants to hear such things.  Actually, such answers are quite good.  The problem is that they make all of life’s losers feel small.  What you want are questions that give us losers a decent chance.

Several good Party Questions involve celebrities.  Which celebrities have you been mistaken for?  (In my case the only answer so far is: Elvis Costello.) Which celebrities have you embarrassed yourself in the presence of?  (Me?  Jenny Agutter.)

But now here comes the educational angle.  My friend Antoine Clarke, also at the party, offered a particular insight on the matter of celebrities you’ve met.  Or was it somebody else, and did I merely discuss this with Antoine?  I can’t remember.  Anyway, the insight was this: celebrities you met at a posh school don’t really count.  The value of a celebrity you knew at school is inversely proportional to the poshness of the school.  So for me, that means scrub Richard Branson, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Mark Phillips.  The fact that I knew (of) CMJ at Marlborough counts for very little.  Marlborough was bound to contain a few subsequent high achievers.  So all that me knowing (of) CMJ at Marlborough proves is that I went to Marlborough, but have not subsequently high achieved.  Big deal.  In contrast, the fact that Antoine met, and embarrassed himself in front of, the noted pop entertainer-ess Dido at Birkbeck College (something to do with his chess club evening clashing with her performing there) counts for a great deal more.

I agree.  Discuss.  Or not, as you please.

Sunday June 29 2008

I’m too busy socialising today to write anything much here today, but I just read this, by the excellent Paul Graham, and I suggest you might like to read it also.  It’s about how you learn to like what you truly like, as opposed to what you merely find impressive.  Education means developing your tastes, as well as just your skills.  It makes your life more fun, as well as more productive.  It doesn’t just make you more expensive, it makes your pleasures cheaper.

Saturday June 28 2008

The Civitas blog has a posting up, by James Gubb, about Frank Furedi’s publication entitled Licensed to Hug.  Gubb’s posting is sympathic to the points Furedi is making, which is encouraging to me, because I am just the kind of unmarried, childless, rather eccentric and wrong-side-of-middle-aged man who is liable to be put off teaching, or any other kind of helping or working with children, by the fear of being thought, or worse, the fear of being accused of being - a paedophile.  I have now undergone the police checking routine twice.  Fair enough, those are the rules and these are the times we live in.  Postings like Gubb’s suggest that Civitas appreciates having a man like me helping out at their schools, and all the more so because of this scarily unhealthy climate of suspicion that Furedi describes and denounces.

It’s a huge subject, and a difficult one to write about, but one thought does occur to me about why I like working for the two Civitas schools I do work for.  (Actually, I have stopped working at Hammersmith Saturday, but that wasn’t because I didn’t like it.  It was merely that I was surplus to requirements.  I was told they had problems, which was true, they did.  But these problems had actually been solved by the time I showed up there.  Hopefully I will soon be helping out somewhere else.)

So anyway, the thought that occurs to me is this: that both the Civitas schools I’ve been teaching at consist of one quite big space, with several teaching operations going on in different parts of the same space.  This actually has a big bearing on this sensitive issue of sexual misconduct, and, more precisely, of the fear of being accused of it.

My previous attempt to help at a school didn’t involve me teaching in a big space, along with other teachers and pupils.  I was on my own, that is to say I was on my own with the one kid, not in a little room, thank goodness, but out in the open area between the classrooms.  So far as I know, nobody ever suspected me – certainly nobody ever accused me - of anything untoward or inappropriate.  But it did occur to me that if a child took against me and accused me of something wicked, it would be my word against his.  (It usually was his, at that school, rather than hers.  That’s because my job was to take troublesome boys for one-to-one teaching, out of classes that they might otherwise disrupt or otherwise be a bit of a problem in.) That was a slightly scary thought.  It wasn’t likely to happen, but if it did ...  What if I had then got caught up in some quasi-legal mincing machine which assumed all such accusations to be true unless proved otherwise?  Not good.

At the Civitas schools, on the other hand, in the event of such unpleasantness, it would not be only my word against a child’s, and any child tempted by the thought of such wickedness would know that.  For that reason alone, a child almost certainly wouldn’t try such a thing.  If a child did try it, the enormity of making such an accusation would quickly be explained, and that would be the end of it, for if a child did make such an accusation, there would be plenty of witnesses to say that I did no such thing, it was all a misunderstanding, he didn’t mean that, etc. etc.

Not only that, but if the personal code of conduct, as it were, that I follow (about such things as bodily contact, shaking hands at the end, and so forth) were to be observed by any of my colleagues, and considered by them to be unwise or open to misunderstanding, then they could straighten me out before any trouble ensued.

Nothing remotely like any of this has happened.  But in this matter as in so many others, I am extremely glad that these other teachers get the chance to keep an eye on me and to watch me in action, in among and as a natural consequence of the way the place works rather than in some kind of self-conscious inspection process.  In general, if I’m not doing what they want, they can say so.  In general, in an open space, they can get to know me, my character, demeanour, general approach, strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and so on.  In the event of needing to reassure somebody about my good character, they’d be comfortable about doing that, because presumably that’s what they have good reason to think that I have.

Likewise, I learn a lot about teaching, and about the proper behaviour of a teacher, from being able to watch them in action.

Working out in the open like this really is a huge improvement on being on my own, the whole Licensed to Hug thing being only one of them, but a significant one, I think. 

Saturday June 21 2008

That’s what it says here:

Celia Lashlie, an education adviser and author, said women should ‘step back and shut up’ in the classroom.

Instead of talking constantly, they should communicate with their pupils using non-verbal cues, such as a raised eyebrow. Female teachers should allow boys to be boys.

Miss Lashlie, who describes herself as a feminist, added that mothers should not try to run their sons’ lives.

‘I’ve been in classes with young female teachers and by the end of the session my ears hurt,’ she added. ‘Women need to step back and shut up.’

Nearly 90 per cent of primary school teachers are women, while at secondary level the figure is about 60 per cent.

Miss Lashlie, who comes from New Zealand, interviewed 180 classes in 25 boys’ schools in her home country for her research.

Her book, He’ll Be OK, is a bestseller in New Zealand and will be published in the UK next week.

The book argues that boys need male role models and Miss Lashlie suggested that schools should be ‘defeminised’ by employing more men.

I have for some time believed that being a male primary school teacher is OKAY.  A decade or two go, such men were, if not actual pedophiles, definitely rather peculiar, if only in being willing to be suspected of being pedophiles.  Now, you are brave, for ignoring all that nonsense.  But just because it’s now okay to be a male teacher of small children, that’s no reason to starting putting the knife into lady teachers.

Certainly, none of the above complaints apply to any of the lady teachers whom I am now getting to know.

I also think that teachers talking a lot can often work rather well.  I find that one of the simplest ways of cheering up a baffled or confused child is to just tell them, again, what you’re trying to tell them, and say: don’t worry if you don’t get it now, you will soon, thanks for listening.  Making him explain everything can sometimes, on the other hand, be excessively pressurising.

Friday June 06 2008

I am genuinely puzzled by this posting, at the Civitas blog.  Anastasia de Waal says that the new IPPR proposals for shorter holidays don’t tackle the problem of home background disadvantage (among all those children with disadvantaged home backgrounds); they merely institutionalise it.  The idea is to have shorter holidays, so that disadvantaged kids, whose family life doesn’t reinforce learning but causes learning to dribble away, don’t forget what they’ve learned over the holidays.  Not, on the face of it, a daft idea.  My doubts about such plans concern why all schools should be organised to suit (and solve the problems of) the disadvantaged.  Would shorter holidays be right for advantaged children?  If not, then maybe advantaged children shouldn’t be subjected to them, only disadvantaged ones.

But Ms. de Waal makes a distinction I just don’t get.  Is talking more slowly and more carefully to a kid who is a bit slow on the uptake institutionalising his slowness?  Perhaps it is.  But in the meantime, it seems like a good thing to do.  How else can you tackle his slowness of mind?

… many policies within the current education system (breakfast and after school clubs in many cases, for example) treat difficult home-lives as given realities. Yet whilst disadvantage is indeed a reality which those working in education must seek to overcome today and tomorrow, for policymakers it ought to be a challenge to be tackled (through better employment records amongst school leavers, for example) not simply a problem incorporated into future planning.

This sounds to me like a variant of the fallacy of the root cause, which says that trying to solve a particular problem is bad, because it leaves the causes of that problem unmolested, and even encourages neglect of such molestation.  But what if the cause can’t easily be eliminated, or even seriously reduced?  What if the cause is something really, really intractable?  Like: home disadvantage.  But what if home disadvantage can be worked around?  What if good education can be done despite home disadvantage?

Maybe shorter holidays is a lousy way of dealing with home disadvantage.  I don’t know.  But if Ms. de Waal thinks that, and that there are better ways for educators to tackle home disadvantage, she should say that, rather than object to the whole idea of tackling problems.  Anyway, I suspect this is not really a disagreement about tackling versus institutionalising, but between different ways of tackling.

Thursday June 05 2008

From a piece entitled Sad children do better than happy ones in school:

However, Dr Schnall suggested that there was no need actively to enforce misery as part of the school curriculum.

Linked to from here.

At least there’s no suggestion that happiness should be enforced.

Saturday May 31 2008

No question about it, this lady is my favourite edublogger just now.  Take this latest posting, for instance.  I have no idea whether I agree with it or not.  But I am very sure that I find the general subject matter most fascinating.

I smile uncomfortably. I hold up my hand as if to say ‘enough’: (it’s ok Hero, you don’t have to keep bowing). And so I bow to him, I suppose to show that there isn’t any need for him to continue bowing.

The boy hesitates. He is confused. He frowns. He doesn’t understand. And as Hero is trying to process my reaction, it dawns on me that I am behaving in the very way that ensures the destruction of our children in England: teachers queuing up for lunch, people listening to both the side of the child and the teacher when a child is in trouble, children being treated as equals with their teachers.

This Japanese boy knows how to show deference to his elders, and in his society this is expected and encouraged. Now he is faced with an elder who rejects this deference. It leaves him confused, as it does to all of our young people in England.

Pecking orders have always fascinated me, which for many decades expressed itself in fascination with, in the broadest sense, politics.  To whom do we properly owe allegiance or at least deference?  Who is claiming allegiance or expecting deference who is not truly owed it?  And how are these various ideas expressed in the minutiae of human behaviour?

And, setting aside the rights and wrongs of it, why do people (children in particular) seem spontaneously to defer to some people (teachers in particular), but not to others?

Confused Japanese boy
The dog was the fact that I was concentrating deeply on something else
How Chinese soldiers are trained to keep their heads up
David Friedman remembers how argument trumps status
Michael J. Lewis on fetters and stern taskmasters
On the sociology of obnoxious-but-nice middle class teenagers
Laureen on how the digital natives learn
Ed Smith on the tragedy and triumph of Billy Beane
Me teaching very young children and me teaching slightly older children
Internet Command Central
Happy Finns?
The name for the job
More about bias in US universities
Why the bias to the left in academia?
“Each one processes information differently …”