Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sue Palmer - Toxic moraliser

Sue Palmer’s one of those professional moralisers, like Lynn Truss and John Huimphries. Author of ‘Toxic Childhood’, she knows best about what’s good for us and our children. A nosy, nanny keen to blame everything on ‘being online’. She’d love to put all techies on the ‘naughty step’. She has a problem with ‘screen-based culture’ and this would be fine if she didn’t have a whacking big website which advertises her courses, books, CDs and availability as a speaker. ‘Toxic Childhood’ and ‘Detoxing Childhood’ are available on CD, from the website....

To purchase the 'Detoxing Childhood' CD for £12.00 (P&P included) click here

It’s like discovering that your drug councillors is a secret cocaine addict!

The problem with people like Palmer is the discriminatory nature of their technology choices. They love radio, especially Radio 4 and woe betide anyone who criticises their quaint, little, middle-class programmes like the Archers. They have cars, washing machines, mobile phones and so on, but when it comes to other people’s technology choices they get all uppity. She hates ‘screen-based’ culture but will appear on TV faster than a hungry whippet and will prostitute herself to The Daily Mail for any old fee.

Toxic teaching

Sue’s site is full of that ‘angry from Tunbridge Wells’ Lynn Truss stuff about apostrophes and bad spelling. You know the sort of stuff, pictures of greengrocer boards with wrong punctuation. She, of course, has the answer; her very own ‘Phonix’ (sic) course. Now, as Alison Morissette would say, isn’t it ironic, that a literacy teacher is blaming technology for poor reading, writing, speaking, punctuation, spelling and everything else, when it has been acknowledged that her own profession and professional advisers were the major cause of the problem by introducing the crazy ‘whole-word’ teaching method into our schools for two decades. We’re still reeling from the effect.

This system had no academic credibility but swept through the system, eagerly snapped up by gullible teachers, and resulted in two generations of poor literacy teaching. Doesn’t she realise that it was education that failed the people who have poor levels of literacy. It was they who were the purveyors of toxic teaching. Thankfully, more experienced teachers and academics put up a fierce battle of resistance. Many deliberately not using these methods in their own classrooms, in contradiction to their school or LEA policy. In the end good sense won out and we went back to a simpler, more sensible approach to learning how to read and write.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Teen report goes bonkers

Some reports are so timely that they become massively viral. This one, based on the evidence of a 15 year-old intern at Morgan Stanley is one such example. Here’s the main points:

More media consumed

Paying more an issue

Advertising is crass

Print, especially newspapers irrelevant, apart from freesheets, like METRO

Mid-range mobiles are good

Comms seen as free – talk using consoles, SKYPE etc

Txting is massive

WiFi more important than 3G

Broadcast radio is dead, (ad fee) & Spotify deliver personalised playlists

Listen to loads of music

Download lots for free

Watch less TV

Hate ads on TV –fast forward

Hate ads on billboards etc

Love support viral marketing

Mostly favourite series or specific sport event

Google is big

YouTube for music/anime

Cinema still popular

Cinema drops off at 15 – gets too expensive

Lots watch DVDs

Everyone has a mobile

Sony Ericsson’s v. Popular

Pay as you go preferred

Txting and calling (not video messaging)

Don’t use phone for email

Email on home computer

Most have PCs, not Macs

Teens hate Twitter

Wiis very popular

Touchscreen is hot

Mobiles that hold lots of music are hot

Portable devices with internet access (iTouch/iPhone) are hot

Really big tellies are hot

Interesting that these rather obvious points should have reached fever-pitch, viral, meme marketing from a report published by a bank. The fact that it was largely compiled by a 15 year-old seemed to have done the trick.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Universities - empty vessels

I’ve been into dozens of Universities over the years, mainly to give talks and lectures, and it never fails to amaze me how empty they are. It’s as if they were test sites for neutron bombs. At one in June, I wandered into three buildings before I could find a living soul who could who could give me directions. The problem is obvious; most of these buildings seem empty because they are empty, most of the time.

Empty and expensive

In fact, even the best rarely reach 25% occupancy per year. University campuses must be the among the most inefficient uses of land and real estate imaginable. Buildings take up valuable land, use utilities such as energy ,water and telecoms and require cleaning, even when empty. They are also, year on year, falling apart, requiring regular physical maintenance Then there’s the administrative costs. It’s all about utilisation. No one in their right mind would design such an inefficient misuse of resources in any other area of human endeavour.

Crops, calendars and capital spend

The problem is the agricultural calendar, but it goes well beyond this. Departmental protectionism demands separate buildings for every department and little in the way of shared resources. On top of all this is the tendency to build to this departmental model, rather than use technology and shared space to encourage cross-disciplinary interaction. The capital spend is departmental and therefore deplorably inefficient. There are notable counter-examples but they are rare. In my home town we have two Universities (U of Brighton and U of Sussex) on the same road but they’d never dream of sharing libraries or anything else for that matter.

Dartmouth as model

I’m rather glad that the Sixth Form and College building programmes have fallen through due to a lack of cash. This will force those institutions to think about the more flexible use of their buildings. This means more use of technology, learning at a distance and sharing. I attended a UK University (Edinburgh) and a US Ivy League University (Dartmouth), and the contrast was startling. Dartmouth has a sophisticated D-plan or semester schedule giving students choices across the entire year. The place was never empty.

OU as model

There is another model here – the OU, perhaps the greatest educational achievement in 20th century Britain. It has the greatest number of students in the UK but the fewest on campus. Why? Because of its use of technology and novel models for teaching and learning. Have other institutions learnt from this? Have they hell.

Universities run for academics not students

Many academics spend very little time at their universities. Some live so far away that it would be impractical. If I decide to do a course at university in October, I have to wait 11 months to start. In this age of on-demand, timeshifted experience, they’re an anachronism. That they have the cheek to offer MBA courses on organisational issues is a disgrace and then they have the further cheek to demand increases in funding which they squander on what - emptiness.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Coffee - its role in learning as wonderdrug and social stimulus

Drink coffee, stay smart
A breakthrough trial from the University of Florida showing that coffee, more accurately caffeine, both prevents and reverses symptoms of Alzheimers in mice. Sure, mice trials don’t always transfer to humans, but these mice had the relevant human genes transferred. It suggests that caffeine both blocks and attacks the plaque that causes Alzheimers and memory loss. The University of Florida used 55 mice and gave one half doses of caffeine, similar to around five cups a day for humans, and the other half water. What was astonishing is that after two months the dementia mice had recovered their memories and were the same as the mice who showed no signs of dementia. The results were astonishing. What’s more, these mice had a 50% reduction in the beta-amyloid protein, which forms the plaque that causes brain dementia. Human trials are expected soon.
Coffee and memory
There’s now lots of evidence that coffee improves short-term memory and reaction times by acting on the pre-frontal cortex. Researchers from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, in a group of 15 volunteers given 100 mg of coffee then scanned and tested, showed distinct improvements in memory in the caffeine fuelled group, "those who received caffeine had significantly greater activation in parts of the prefrontal lobe, known as the anterior cingulate and the anterior cingulate gyrus. These areas are involved in 'executive memory', attention, concentration, planning and monitoring."
In another French study researchers compared women aged 65 and older who drank more than three cups of coffee per day with those who drank one cup or less per day. Those who drank more caffeine showed less decline in memory tests over a four year period. The study, published in the journal of Neurology, raises the possibility that caffeine may also protect against the development of dementia.
A refined study from the University of Arizona, published a trial in Psychological Science, showed that in 40 participants, given 250 Mg of coffee or decaffeinated coffee, the group that were given caffeine showed no decline in memory across the day in contrast to the decaffeinated group who showed significant decline.
Coffee shops and learning
Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, reminded me this morning at the Reboot Britain conference, that coffee shops were the 'social network’ hubs of their day. Long established in the Muslim world, they became the focus for debate and business. Late 17th century coffee shops charged a penny a cup and were called ‘penny universities’, as they were such powerful places of cross-disciplinary debate. By 1739, 551 coffee shops were open in London, many hives of intellectual and business activity. Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop became Lloyds of London. Jonathon’s Coffee House in 1698 listed stock prices, which eventually became the London Stock Exchange. Similarly in New York, a coffee house became the New York Stock Exchange.
More recently Starbucks and its imitators, picked up on the laptop workers offering free wifi fuelling work with unfeasibly large cups of coffee. They've now become focal points for meetings and working. Many have people deep in though, writing, coding, emailing and doing their jobs, stimulated by coffee and the general social environment of a warn and inviting place. WiFi in coffee shops has given them a real lease of life.
Coffee is cognitively good for you
Coffee has therefore long fuelled learning, whether it be through the direct stimulation of the brain, increasing attention, improving memory, preventing dementia or providing a social context for debate and work.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Why schools are divisive

Community cohesion!

Educational policy makers love abstract concepts, especially if they’re alliterative , like ‘community cohesion’. Schools have been given a key role by the Government and OFSTED, we’re told, in ‘community cohesion’, yet another spurious concept and role to distract schools from the business of ‘learning’.

Any real community facet to a school is accidental. Kids are forced by law to go there, parents meet each other when they deliver and pick up their offspring at the start and end of the day (but at the schools gates-never going inside). In reality, schools are the very opposite of communal and could be described as divisive.

7 divisive behaviours

  1. An apartheid runs through the UK system of private/public schools divides sharply along class and socioeconomic lines, separating rich from poor.
  2. Another apartheid split is along academic/vocational lines, with Diplomas being branded as 2nd class A-levels.
  3. Faith schools divide communities along religious lines, whether it be Catholic, Church of England, Islam or Judaism. They isolate and separate rather than encourage community spirit.
  4. Schools shut up shop for five major periods per year, so they are completely inert in the community for much of the year.
  5. Even when open they are largely closed institutions, with little in the way of shared facilities or access by the community.
  6. Students have little opportunity to really engage with the community, as schools are places of incarceration. Community work is not a formal part of the curriculum.
  7. Schools largely exclude parents from the process of education, keeping them at a distance with ten minutes or so every year.

Community mistaken for disunity

In practice ‘community cohesion’ means yet more over-written, vague policy documents. Of course, what they actually mean by community is the same old diversity agenda. The gathering of endless stats on racism, homophobic behaviour and so on. Community is being mistaken for disunity. Remember that over 60% of the parents and people in the community see school as the place they failed. Look to pubs, clubs, cafes, parks and other places for community, not schools.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sean Bailey - talking Tory tornado

Shaun Bailey’s breezes into debates like a tornado, turning things on their head and challenging orthodoxies. As the black Conservative candidate for Hammersmith with 20 years experience in working in tough environments, he has earned the right to fight the next election on issues on which he knows a great deal.

He goes for the throats of the teacher unions, blaming them for betraying the students in state education by introducing undemanding environments in schools for the very people that need demands made of them. Unions deliver benefits to teachers, not students and parents. This parental involvement is a common theme among the people he speaks but they are largely excluded from the equation. It all starts in the home – damn right it does, so why do schools ignore or patronise parents so much?

As a youth worker for 20 years he sees that nobody is being really honest with the kids and parents he knows. Middle class types molly-coddle people which leads them towards almost certain failure. Lay it on the line – tell them and their parents what the consequences of educational failure actually means. Don’t pander to their every cultural need. It’s not about immersing people in the destructive side of their culture – a strong believer in sport and competition, he regrets the culture of dependency that is rampant in his community, making young black kids less, not more, independent. He says to the boys he works with, “I’ll do nothing for you but anything to help you.”

In education he is full on when it comes to classroom discipline and home-school agreements. He sees state sector education as having dropped the ball on these issues. Make sure the parents sign a document making it clear what their responsibilities are. I’m with him here. Our home-school agreement is written in that vague institutional style and says nothing about actual responsibilities. It even includes jargon that only an educational professional would understand. Schools are ‘educational’ establishments, not holding pens. He doesn’t really buy the idea that schools are the key to Community Cohesion and every fashionable social theory that pops up.

Much as I disagree with his politics, he’s a good guy and we need people like him to stimulate an otherwise moribund debate. His straight-talking style and honesty is what’s badly needed in parliament.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

OFSTED's own Xena the Warrior Princess

Zenna Atkins is the Chair of OFSTED and a force of nature. A good 6 foot in heels she tells it as it is and isn’t afraid to have a go at all of those educational moralisers who use OFSTED as an excuse for their own failures. Expelled from school with only one o-level, she’s become an experienced social entrepreneur and operator in large public sector bodies. I spoke on the same platform as her at a Channel 4 event this week and she booted things off in fine fashion. You can see her at Portsmouth games just behind the corner flag bad mouthing opposition players.

Don’t blame ofsted

She’s more than a little impatient with teachers and others who simply point elsewhere, usually to OFSTED, when people try to identify weaknesses and improve education. Sure OFSTED has its weaknesses, but who would deny that bad teaching exists, that there are too many people teaching who don’t want to be there and shouldn’t be there, that schools are poorly run fiscally? Are we really saying that they should not be inspected?

Schools infantalise parents

Her second theme was a powerful argument against blaming parents. One teacher in the audience described ‘the prejudice of parents’. The simple fact is that 60% of parents left school with qualifications we regard as being less than satisfactory. School, for the majority of parents, is somewhere they do not want to revisit, as it is where they were marked as failures. She herself describes how she feels nervous when visiting schools and often feels as if she’s being told off in conversations with staff. No wonder parents are not engaged with the education of their children. Schools infantalise parents.


Is the curriculum relevant? Not on your Nellie. As an employer she looks for autonomy and whether the students has stuck a paper round, rather than qualifications. So much of what is taught is only relevant to the minority of students. The lack of relevance to survival, never mind employment is astonishing.


Also an advocate of technology she has no time for those who shilly shally behind excuses for not getting on with the task of using the technology that learners already use in their daily lives.


Now here’s why I love Xena. At the end of her talk she rattled out some politically sensitive ideas around ‘kids teaching kids’, ‘ linking benefits to ‘school attendance and performance’, making the money ‘follow the kids’. I’ve never heard public servants speak like this in public and being so unafraid of the press. Xena then shot off for her appraisal, leaving a shocked audience in her not inconsiderable wake.

Give me 10,000 Xenas

We need far more people like Xena on public sector boards. She’s smart, understands her domain, has empathy with the people she’s trying to help, and is vocal. Far too many boards are packed with people who shy way from controversy or contention. We need people who scrutinise, debate and work towards change. In education there are far too many people making decisions on the state sector while sending their own kids private. Far too many who are part of some small network, often ‘London-based’. Then there’s the tokenism of diversity, focusing on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. The system is atherosclerotic, gummed up with the plaque of tokenism and traditionalism.