Showing posts from 2010

Outliers inside the Black Box: nature, nurture and the difficulty of capturing Tinkerbell

A merry Christmas to you! I, like many others, marked the season with the definitive West of Scotland diet (fried cigarettes, etc.) and the annihilation of the very concept of abstinence (I absorbed such a vast amount of alcohol that it simulated being attached to a drip containing Bacardi in a solution of Whisky; as we speak I'm sipping Listerene to avoid my body convulsing with withdrawal symptoms, like the Bends). Fortunately I didn't get too many books on Progressive Education, so among other things, I re-read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and it got me thinking as I watched 'The One Ronnie' and wondered if it there was a collective noun for the less funny ones left behind in comedy duos when the talent inevitably catches the last train. In the absence of a better term, I'll use the phrase 'a Corbett' . As my producer said. Aha.

You may have read one of Gladwell's books; certainly it seems statistically more likely that you have than you haven…

Hogwarts in Special Measures: Notice to improve

Oh boy, oh boy. A response, below, got me thinking about Harry Potter's educational experiences. Perhaps you've heard of him? I know this is a well worn path, but tinkering around on the wiki entry for Scotland's premier selective boarding school with a giant squid made comment irresistable. Here are some of the things that immediately struck me:

1. It's a selective boarding school, with fees payable. What's the selection criteria? Ability? Faith? Wealth? Er, no, actually, it's birth. If you're 'born magic, or not,' as the book puts it. So if you're a member of the lucky sperm club you qualify for entrance. Oh, how jolly egalitarian. Of course, qualification still doesn't imply admission, as the poorer candidates (like Tom Riddle) find out. You still have to cough up the Galleons, or groats, or whatever the Hell wizards buy their milk with. Dumbledore magnanimously allows that 'there are funds available for students who cannot afford robe…

Teaching styles in the movies #1: Mr Han, The Karate Kid (2010 remake)

I've been meaning to write about the diverse ways in which teaching is presented in popular media. How better to combine two of my passions: films and pedagogy? Apart from playing films in classes (or 'multimedia texts' as my lesson plans refer to them) of course. And what better place to start than with Jackie Chan's crowd-pleasing turn as the Mr Miyagi for the Bieber generation? Harold Zwart's franchise reboot moves the coming-of-age fairy tale from California to China, and replaces Ralph Macchio's buck-toothed American everyteen with Will Smith's terrifyingly precocious Mini-me, Jaden. But the teaching premise remains the same: unskilled innocent with a heart learns martial arts in order to smash evil, win a girl's heart, and along the way discovers that in order to become a man, the first person you have to conquer is yourself. You know; that sort of thing. The update keeps its cool, preserves the main motifs that made the original a success, and d…

Evil detentions: It's your time you're wasting

Ah, the good old fashioned detention, unlovely and unloved by teacher and student alike. But if you spend more than a week in a school, you'll be on first name terms with them pretty sharp, because they remain the stand-by of sanctions, the .45 in the teacher's naughty clip. Let me lay out the logic behind their invention, and if I go too fast, I'll refer you back to the start of this paragraph:

Kid mucks about; kid gets detention; kid doesn't enjoy detention; kid associates mucking about with something he doesn't enjoy. Desired outcome? A reduction in mucking about.

Like I say, it's pretty complex. Actually, no, it's simple; it's as simple as a lever on a pivot. And that's what it is: a machine for reducing poor behaviour using the most obvious, intuitively visible axioms known to psychology- we avoid things we dislike. Jeremy Bentham, eat your heart out, because 'Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and …

It's a wonderful job: a Christmas Story

Finally watched Frank Capra's 'It's a wonderful life' last night, and if you are one of the two or three dozen that haven't yet met this charming American filmic myth, then let me be the latest in a long line of people to say, somewhat redundantly, that it's a masterpiece. (In other news: fire is hot). It is, for those of you living in Survivalist communes in Nebraska or belonging to an Amish choir, a tale of the little guy who makes a difference in his community, being rescued from the brink of despair by a poignant, Christmas Carol meme of 'what if?' Lionel Barrymore, I'm afraid to say, is as wooden as Patsy Kensit as the Guardian Angel. But Jimmy Stewart can play likeable everyman characters in a way that makes Tom Hanks appear edgy and controversial.

(I must add that, for the majority of my adult life, I was under the illusion that It's a Wonderful Life was directed by Franz Kafka. I always suspected it was a bit fishy, but I didn't wan…

TES Live Tour part 2

I've been invited into TES Towers on Monday for a live webchat between 5 and 6.30, for another round of applying my monkey fingers to speed-typing requirements. Please feel free to log on if you fancy watching me misspell 'differentiate' for the seventh time in a row, and differently each time. I'll be smoking cigars and writin' pearls for ya.

The Importance of Teaching part 1: why every government only wants us for our bodies, not our brains

Education gets so much attention from a succession of lusty, tongue-tied ministerial suitors that I think they fancy us. And who can blame them? We're gorgeous.

Why is it that the education sector gets groped, man-handled and thrown against the barn door more than, say transport or agriculture (although those blushing beauties don't have long before their dance cards are filled too)? Why does education get all the love letters, the ministerial flirting, the protestations of love and devotion, the flowers, the promises, that this time, things will be different...? But it's not long before they reveal their true colours; once their names are above the doors, the candlelit dinners are a thing of the past, and before you know it, we're expected to have dinner ready on the table as they rock in whenever they fancy, reeking of port and agreeable dining. Ah, l'amour.

I've been reading the White Paper this week- who hasn't? It's like the latest Stieg Larsen; if y…

Book Review in the TES

Martin Spice wrote a very kind review of 'The Guru' today in the Times Educational Supplement. Of course, when I say 'kind' I mean wise, perceptive and balanced. Mr Spice, I salute your pen. And it was good for me to get feedback on my feedback, if you get my drift. (Meta-feedback?) It's really valuable for me to understand how my advice reads, especially in the SAS style of forum replies.

Read it here, unless the Apprentice is on or something. Just enormously grateful it wasn't panned into the ground with a pile driver.

'I sense a presence'. Oh really? The myth of teacher presence.

I answered a question on the forums today from a teacher who had been told, as many have been, to work on their presence. I've heard this mythical beast alluded to so many times, I thought I'd copy it here. This was my reply:

'Thank goodness they advised you to work on your presence; for a second I thought they were going to be vague.You are right to feel confused by this 'advice'- it's like being told to work on your charisma or your wisdom. Why? Because it's a quality that refuses quantification; it's a nebulous, subjective characteristic that exists in the mind of the perceiver, not some mystical miasma that you excrete like marsh gas.To say someone has presence is to describe OUR relationship with that person; or OUR reaction to that person. For example: sit next to an unknown on the bus, and you could care less; realise that it's someone off t'telly and suddenly you're interested- they gain 'presence' in your eyes. Walk …

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius: review of the Behaviour Guru in the Times Educational Supplement this Friday

Through the snowy wastes a lone carrier pigeon made it to me from the offices of Red Lion Square; as I fed it hot chocolate and rubbed warm linseed oil into its dorsal feathers, it told me that The Behaviour Guru will be reviewed in this Friday's Times Educational Supplement.

It's a strange thing to contemplate. It has been, I am happy to say, an undiluted joy to see one's name on the jacket of anything with pages. But like Moses, you haven't reached the Promised Land by any stretch. Because during the process of writing a book, it feels like you're writing for yourself, even a humble teacher manual. I think you have to do this; if you write to please anyone other than yourself, at least initially, then you might as well get someone to ghost it. Steven King calls this 'writing with the doors shut'.

Then you polish it; then you get a critical friend to read it, and you brace yourself for the result. It's like being one of those people in the first few roun…

The Pursuit of Happiness: Jeremy Bentham, David Cameron and the Principle of Utility

Spent a fascinating afternoon at the UCL on Friday, taking a Platonically Ideal group of A2 students to take part in theTranscribe Bentham project. Jeremy Bentham was a 19th century utilitarian philosopher and reformer who famously requested in his will that his cadaver be dissected, reassembled, stuffed with straw, and dressed for display. This charming paperweight (called the Auto-Icon) is a handsome addition to the foyer of any metropolitan University, and surely the perfect gift for any lonely academic this Christmas; it was also an ideal focal point for a Philosophy trip, which at the best of times proves problematic. You tell me how I organise a fun day out based on Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

Bentham wrote 60,000 papers, but only 20,000 of them have been transcribed and studied properly, so it's a Wiki-style project to crowd-source labour, an enormous open contribution that will eventually digitise every nuance of thought the old pleasure-seeker scribbled. I can't reco…
Half way through the white paper. Losing the will to live...Especially with this charmer girning down from the inside cover. It's the kind of smile that says, 'I am a warm and approachable person. Didn't your brother go to Fettes?'

Saudi Arabian Government 'very concerned' about British schools

An investigation by the Saudi Arabian Panorama has spotlighted concerns about the levels of fundamentalism and racial intolerance in British schools based in mainly English areas of busy multicultural areas like Riyadh.

'We're worried,' said Faisal, an investigator for the program. 'We have evidence that many of these schools have high levels of unchecked disrespect, swearing, vandalism and general rudeness. In some cases, we are led to believe that these children, rather than being excluded, are kept in the classroom, where they are free to run riot. And teachers are punished for children misbehaving, by a process the Europeans call 'Ahf-sted'. It is a very terrible and medieval torture, with teachers having their pride cut off.'

But it doesn't end with that. 'It gets worse,' continued Faisal, 'These schools are guilty of the ugliest intolerances; they claim to value every child, but the reality is an evil prejudice against well-behaved child…

Exclusions expelled: private school alumnus tells state schools, 'Don't exclude bad children'.

Well, it had to happen. Just as I was beginning to wonder who had stolen Michael Gove and replaced him with a human being, I am simultaneously reassured and appalled to see that business is proceeding as normal. In a story in the Daily Telegraph, it's reported that Gove has decided that, in future any school that excludes a pupil will be forced to pay the costs towards that child's education in the school they move on to after exclusion. AND, the grades that the child obtains in their new school will count for the school which excluded in the last place. Which given the demographic of the excluded, doesn't normally mean A*s.

I am gnashing my teeth and clawing at the sockets of my eyes over this. This is, without a doubt, the single most anti-education policy that I have heard in the last five years. At least until now it has been merely difficult to exclude; schools have been deterred from excluding by the threat of an unfavourable Ofsted inspection, on the already witless …

Student Voice: excuse me- do you mind if I teach you?