Monday, October 30, 2006

Not about teaching

The last few days of the half term were spent relaxing and trying to achieve at least one night's sleep uninterrupted by sudden night terrors about the number of lessons left until January modules.

I also received a big parcel of books from the lovely people at Amazon including three blogger-written tomes. The first one I read was 'Blood, Sweat and Tea' by Tom Reynolds. His blog 'Random Acts of Reality' is now firmly on my RSS list and will be on my blogroll when I can find some time to update my template.

It's an account of life as a London EMT (=paramedic, although there is a difference) I adore books which draw you into the world of a workplace or institution and this is a really, really good one. It's a well balanced mix of tragic stories, anedotes and fascinating nuggets, told with wit and huge compassion. There's also lots of toe-curling accounts of the impact of government targets, so it's great fodder for my continual howl against the corrosive effects on British life of league tables and the like.

The most extraordinary thing for me was the extent of Tom's enthusiasm, professionalism and sheer goodwill. He regularly characterises himself as hating everyone, but in fact he seems to be an outstandingly decent bloke who is remarkably optimistic in the face of the almost criminal stupidity of many people (such as people who lie about having heart attacks, which results in ambulance drivers hurtling across London at dangerous speeds, only to find that the patient has a bit of a cough which they've had for a few weeks now and won't go away...)

It has honestly made me stop and think. Sure, I have a tough job but hey, I've not had any HIV positive patients' blood in my mouth recently.

Didn't stop me being grumpy as hell today, though.

PS If you want to buy the book, I suggest you go to Tom's blog via the link above and scroll down, then click on the link on the right. But you know that. Sorry.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Other delightful things to make you glad you live in the era of the Internet

Onesentence - a web site devoted to telling true stories in a single sentence... it's riveting.

Amazing videos - a knife bursting a water balloon and a cigarette lighter igniting, both in slow motion.

Handy Latin phrases - ventis secundis, tene cursum

Unbelievable wind powered robots

An exquisite piece of science inspired animation

And finally the totally weird (spelled correctly) and slightly spooky Whitney Chromatic.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Let out your inner artist!

Some web sites to help you express yourself:

Start with a visit to; this should get you in the mood. (You can see some genuine Pollocks here.)

Slightly less abstract is the wonderful Mr Picasso Head complete with Picasson style signature.

Art Pad is a clever Paint-style application which allows you to regress to childhood and enjoy slapping paint onto paper, albeit in a virtual manner.

And finally, go here and download the freeware version of Art Rage2, a truly fabulous painting program which allows you to work with paint that behaves and looks remarkably realistic. The longer you drag the mouse without releasing it, the less paint remains on the brush. Painting one colour over another results in satifsying (or annoying) smudging between the different colours. I am just about to upgrade to the full version which promises glitter, metallic paints and other goodies!

Release you inner child, create and express yourself, and no-one will tell you to wash the paint pots afterwards!

This posting released under the terms and conditions of my half-term pledge. Normal service will be resumed on 30th October.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Half-term wanderings in the web

I am a geek and therefore delight in spending the first day of any school holiday in my pyjamas messing around on the computer.

If you are a PC user with a broadband internet connection, have a look at this excerpt from 'Brilliant Ignorance.' It lists dozens of freeware applications you can download for your PC. I especially recommend Mozilla Firefox (web browser - once you try, you'll never go back) and ATnotes, which allow you to litter your desktop with fully customisable transaprent post-it notes in various colours.

A few months ago I found a web application that dramatically reduced the amount of dull and useless TV I watched in my spare time. StumbleUpon lets you download a toolbar which sits at the top of your browser with a button cheerfully marked Stumble! You choose topics that interest you, and when you hit the button, it gives you a random page from those catagories. StumbleUpon has built up a vast, user-recommended database of websites and allows you to visit your favourites via a web page at any time. I now spend literally hours online, simply pressing the button and have come across dozens of fabulous web sites as a result. One of my colleagues has had to remove the toolbar in order to get his life back...

If you are still too tired and grumpy to think about doing anything purposeful, a visit to The Pipecleaner Dance might restore your soul. You can play it with mouse or keyboard. Making a small pipecleaner man dance like John Travolta to 'Staying Alive' is just huge, huge fun and guaranteed to put a childish smile on your face. David Bessler is a hero.

This posting is part of my half-term pledge. Normal service will be resumed on 30th October

Friday, October 20, 2006

A half-term announcement

It's now officially half term! And in a bold move that I will regret when sober, I am pledging to give up my depressing trawl through UK education news for nine days and instead prove that inside this weary and jaded husk there is still a creative and optimistic core.

To start with, if you are not feeling sufficiently chilled out yet, may I commend OK Go's 'Here It Goes Again.' I know it's been around for a while now, but if you haven't seen it, watch it at once. It always cheers me up.

Vive les vacances!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Would you teach in a school with compulsory hijab?

I've been thinking through the issue of the Madani High School's proposed dress code, which includes hijab for all girls, including non-Muslims. (There's a nicely emotive headline here - the schoolgirls will be forced to wear headscarves which sounds like a St Trinian-esque sub-dom scenario with a misguided sartorial twist.)

I haven't got a daughter so I couldn't get my head round the question of whether I'd send her to a good school where she had to wear a headscarf... So instead I have been asking myself whether I would take a job in a school which required me to cover my head. It wouldn't offend me as Christian to adopt an Islamic practice per se. On the other hand, I dislike the theological and philosophical basis of headcovering and what it says about women and men... but I am usually quite pragmatic about matters like this (for pragmatic read cowardly.)

To be really honest, though, at the end of an eight week half term, on my last legs after two Open Evenings and a bout of food poisoning...I would love to be able to wear a scarf and not have to worry about how terrible my hair is looking at the moment. Yep, I am that shallow.

Tribunal rules on Aisha Azmi

An industrial tribunal has ruled that Aisha Azmi was not the victim of religious discrimination, but was nevertheless victimized. (BBC) Turns out she has been suspended since February last year! Obviously the whole affair was only spotlighted as a convenient way for the press to keep the Jack Straw debate going.

Let's not forget that Tony himself waded in on this one.

Me, I'm more convinced than ever that it's untenable to have teachers wearing face veils. I am moved by Azmi's words when she asks us to remember that Muslim women who wear the veil are "not aliens", and am sympathetic to the fact she clearly feels put upon, and who blames her? She's absolutely right when she says that politicians should watch what they say as the impact on individuals can be profound and damaging.

However, she is wrong to labour the point that she can teach 'perfectly' while veiled and to make, again, the spurious comparison to teaching blind children. (Couldn't find a web link but she was interviewed on the Radio 4 news.) That's a stupid comparison. If her child went to school and needed extra support with listening skills, and that support was given by someone who could not speak, instead communicating only through sign language, would she be happy with this? Would the comment that 'hearing impaired children learn brilliantly so why are you so prejudiced?' be acceptable to her? I think we are all capable of recognising the excellence of teachers (and students) with various learning differences, without resorting to specious comparisons and idiotic logic.

Sorry, a bit angry there.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"You have a blog... tell them how you feel"

This made me so defeated. It's an article about Internet plagiarism in universities. Most of it's fairly dull, but this bit jumped off the screen and slapped me round the face...
Some institutions may share some of the blame because they "go around insisting everyone is using PowerPoint and gives out hand-outs", according to Baroness Deech.

She said: "If people were given books, there might be more chance they would digest what they are reading."
We spoonfeed them handouts and PowerPoint presentations because it gets us better results. Do you want young people to be given the chance to think, to try to read proper books and extract the key points for their essays, to attempt their own research and do things for themselves? Fine, but more of them will fail. And we are supposed to be avoiding failure at all costs.

Which do you want? You decide, and when you decide, tell us teachers which you want. AND THEN SHUT UP. Sorry, Ruth Deech. You've kicked the last spark out of my already exhausting day.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Breaking news - hijab to be compulsory

At voluntary-aided Madani High School in Leicester, hijab (modest dress, i.e. covering of the hair) will be compulsory even for non-Muslim girls. This is breaking news reported by the TES here at 13:00 today, Sunday 15th Oct. Let's see how soon it hits the news bulletins.

Can't even begin to think through a cogent response to this one.

Calls for Aisha Azmi to be sacked.

Phil Woolas says that Aisha Azmi should be sacked. The BBC report it here and Mr Woolas's discussion with the Mirror is here .

The most interesting thing is the video of the interview with Ms Azmi. She admits after much blustering that she was interviewed with her face uncovered by a male governor; and although she is quite cagey, it seems to me that she did not make it clear at her interview that she would be unwilling to work unveiled at the school. Throughout the TV clip she insists she is perfectly able to communicate but the footage clearly disproves that - we are unable to see whether she is genuinely confused by the TV interviewer (Peter Sissons?), intimidated, or completely aware that this admission is about to hole her case below the waterline. Deprived of her facial expressions, her voice sounds strident and unpersuasive, which is a pity.

It's very interesting that Sissons takes the line that Azmi should have made certain assumptions because it was a Church of England school. Azmi then takes the line that she made other assumptions because it was a 'mainly Muslim school'. Surely neither of these factors are at all relevant if this is an argument about whether she could do her job or not. So what if the kids are used to seeing veiled women? The issue is their needs in the classroom. If they are receiving bilingual support they are already at a disadvantage in our school system and they deserve the best help they can get. However, it's also arguable that a bilingual support worker from one's own community is the best possible resource in this situation, so this advantage outweighs any disadvantage such as the hindrance of the veil.

The other thing that is starting to worry me is how impossible it would be to run a school where some of the staff are effectively refusing to work with some others. Whoever line manages Ms Azmi will have to deploy other staff so that any male teachers in the school don't come into contact with her while she is working unveiled. In most small schools there just isn't that much flexibility.

So I think, overall, I am becoming fixed in my views, and less and less sympathetic to the case... which is slightly worrying. Because behind all this remains a nagging worry that the press is happily exploiting the more strident voices within Islam; because it is a very juicy story - dissent in the classroom, alienation within a primary school, radical Islam, children, the mystery of the veil.... Should we be pleased or distressed watching a woman in a veil getting a public drubbing by a pompous middle aged white guy?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Aishah Azmi defends herself - the niqab debate continued

The plot thickens. Both the mystery of what actually went on in Headfield Church of England Junior School; and the question of whether the school and Ms Azmi herself are being used to keep the Jack Straw story on the boil. I woke to the Radio 4 news this morning and her version (of the events that I blogged yesterday) was first item in the news bulletin. However, the BBC News website's reporting of the updated story mingles it - unhelpfully - with London Mayor Ken Livingstone's thoughts on the matter, along with a generic picture of a mysterious looking woman wearing a niqab.

The only other report I can find is in the The Mirror , who report that she was promised by the school that she would only have to work unveiled with women; they also report her as having said that
"It's not true that there had been complaints. The kids are mostly Muslim anyway and most of their mothers wear the veil anyway so they would never, ever have a problem."
and that she felt
"...I was under a lot of pressure to take it off or resign. No alternative was offered. I was told disciplinary action was inevitable."

Friday, October 13, 2006

The niqab debate reaches education

In Dewsbury today, a primary school teaching assistant was suspended because she insisted on covering her face with a veil while working with kids and they could not understand her. Wierd timing. Or is it the case that this kind of workplace disagreement is only headline news when it fuels an ongoing head-line grabbing debate involving religion, gender, sex, power and politics?

I think that the school was right to ask her to remove the veil while she worked with the kids, and if she felt she could not do this, she should have not been given the job in the first place. The school appears to support her wearing the veil outside the classroom, only asking her to remove it when working one to one with the children.

I am personally quite torn on the issue of the niqab, and indeed on the hijab. I teach many young Muslim women from different ethnic backgrounds, and practice varies widely. In my younger days I took very seriously certain religious imperatives of my own faith and can understand young people seeking to make a stand on their beliefs as they grown into adulthood. On the other hand, I am completely unimpressed by what I understand to be the theological basis of the requirement for women to cover their hair and bodies.

So I am stuck. I respect their personal faith and their commitment, I respect Islam, but I don't respect the specific tenets of the faith that require this particular obedience from them. In a similar way I reject certain actions carried out in the name of my own faith while understanding my co-religionists' desire to seek God and to serve him faithfully in the world.

Ah me.

Radio 4 radio clip on the theological basis of hijab - only available until 16th October

The science curriculum debate III

And here's a very radical article from Simon Jenkins. Wouldn't go this far myself but he makes some very good points.

BTW, it's not that I only read the Guardian, but the Independent does not have an RSS feed...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The science curriculum debate

When I was training as a science teacher, the National Curriculum was billed as the solution to the shortage of scientists and engineers in the UK. By making 'Double Science' (i.e. two GCSE's worth of combined science) compulsory for all kids at GCSE, the government hoped more students would fall in love with science and go on to study it at University.

Instead, schools wrestled with the reality of teaching all students - all students - huge great wodges of science. Hell has fewer miseries more grim than a set five science group you see for 20% of their timetabled time. As other options emerged (downgrading to single science - 1 GCSE of combined science - switching to GNVQ or similar) schools with a high proportion of this type of student grabbed them.

At the other end of the spectrum, many students found that their options to study science in the future were severely limited. Potential future scientists were frustrated, as schools could not easily offer them the 'three sciences' option alongside the compulsory Double Award. By insisting that everyone did some science, less and less students were able to prepare for the rigours of A-level. Students who were somewhere between the extremes - unable, at the tender age of 14, to know if they would blossom into academic success or leave school early, were usually shifted into whichever solution offered the best 'headline results'. This was all the more galling, because this was why we got rid of grammar schools - to allow students longer to grow into academic success, keeping their options open, most especially those who did not have parents acting as pro-education cheerleaders on the sidelines.

So the powers-that-be put their heads together once more, to try and work out a solution which gives all students what they need to survive in a technological society, while at the same time inspiring and equipping future scientists. The result was the science reforms that have been rolled out this Autumn, including 'Science for the 21st century', a GSCE which aims to provide scientific literacy. [A briefing from the Association for Science Education here]

In a telling quote from the BBC
...pupils who take up 21st Century science are unlikely to be those who plan to take science at A-level and then university.
Today, Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College and member of the Institute of Ideas, has criticised the new GCSE science qualification because they will lock students out of future university courses.

I am in such anguish. I have not taught GCSE science for many years, but I have long thought that the UK education system needs something like a 'science for life' course. Forcing all 15 year olds to study physics is just wrong. And I love physics. I really enjoyed teaching science and think that everyone needs to be scientifically literate in order for society to survive.

At the same time, I also know that students who do not have a good GCSE foundation struggle hopelessly at A-level. They need to have had strong teaching, traditional-style courses and the curriculum time to study all three sciences, or at least two to sufficient depth.

So, I'm with OCR, who summed it up thus,
"GCSE qualifications in the sciences are required to meet two quite different needs: firstly, to prepare all students for life in the 21st century, in which science is a part of everyday experience, and secondly to prepare future scientists for their studies at A-level and beyond."
Why can't we do both? Why can't there be flexibility, options, choice, risk? I'll tell you why not. League tables.

Children lose out when they are not given the option to take courses that they are less likely to pass. Schools can't afford the risk of entering students for challenging subjects. Far better to put them in for the courses that will maximise their 'success'. Because the bottom line is the league table pass rate. At all costs we must service the pass rate. So the question becomes 'What science options can we afford to offer in our school? Which will guarantee a better bottom line statistic? Which is safest?' In this context, schools will continue to offer whatever courses best service the pass rate.

The 21st century science course is for 'students unlikely to take science at University'. How many schools will take that decision for all their pupils at the age of 14 simply because it is too costly for them, in terms of the league tables, to do otherwise?

I've been feeling sick about this all day. I have arrived at the desperately depressing conclusion that there is no reform in current education that can ever work while schools are held up to public judgement and competition using highly simplified statistics alone. The forces acting on schools today distort and corrupt the education of children. They are evil.

More information from the BBC here, and see the Guardian here, and all about the Insitute of Ideas here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Warning! Facts may appear even more true when animated on a Mac

How's this for a fantastic Newsnight-style video version of the facts about hardness?

With huge thanks to M.

It's now official. Physics is hard.

Here is the pictorial proof. In the manner of all contemporary educational statistics I have taken fleeting whimsy and turned it into FACT.

I assumed people would rank the subjects they found easiest as objectively the easiest. This may be a false assumption. I know M has been honest in saying that programming is easy (look at his blog and guess his profession) but for all we know, some of you others could be physicists who enjoy the cachet...

Maybe we need to consider what standards we expect of people. There are dozens of rubbish drivers, rubbish actors and (according to my psychology colleagues) rubbish psychologists (most, apparently, writing for women's magazines or presenting reality TV shows.) However, we don't find ourselves whinging about the generally poor quality of historians or physicists in Britain today. Only the good get on, and mostly they keep themselves to themselves and only bother us to present Channel 4 series. However, one commentator argues conversely that rubbish physicists are still pretty useful, which is one of the ways we know it's hard, in comparison with rubbish actors, who are good for nothing...

Is physics objectively hard? Is acting objectively easy? Or do more people find physics hard and more people find acting easy?

My own personal experience is this.

Easiest of all is physics. (Although I did wimp out of physics after my first year at university.) Conceptually, theoretical physics is simply maths in action, and I find maths straightforward, given time and a clear head.

Then I would say programming. Only done a bit. But given time and resources, programming is a logical pseudo-mathematic process. Can't claim to be able to program with a haunting elegance, but I can usually get there in the end.

Next psychology and history, tied. I haven't studied psychology, but I have studied the sociology of the life sciences, and history of science. Harder than physics and programming because there's no end point, no answer, just an endless quest for meanings and connections. Also, a lot of language based understanding. But I find reading as easy as maths so that's OK.

The second hardest thing I've ever done is learn to drive. Took me four different instructors and 17 years.

And the hardest thing I have ever done is learn improvisational drama with a bunch of professional drama teachers. It's the only time I have ever considered physically running away from a learning situation. That's a whole other story.

PS If you have followed my blog for a while and remember my post on Jan Srameck, please check out his reply below.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A reply from Jan Srameck

Amazingly, I've just received a comment on an earlier post about Jan Srameck, the young man who got A grades in 10 A-levels this summer, now studying economics at Cambridge. I reprint the reply, which I assume is from Jan himself, in full below

Having been alerted to this by a friend of mine, I think that I need to correct a few things which have been said, and to provide some explanations.

1) "Then we add economics, business studies and 'economics and business studies combined' - surely a blatant case of sitting exams for the sake of it? The amount of overlapping content must have been laughable."

not that you could have known this, but my school only taught E&B combined and that's the course I studied for the full 2 years..sitting the additional Economics/Business as separate A-levels was, in fact, partially a bet with several friends, partially a preparation for the AEA papers (formerly S-levels) in Economics and Business, which, being separate papers, would probably be even more difficult having studied the joint course only.

therefore, your argument is in fact wrong, as doing those 2 enabled me to do the more advanced stuff, in favour of which you argued later on

2) "ICT is a huge amount of work, but maybe not a significant challenge for him, especially if Jan is a hobbiest computer fan - which he may well be, with his strong flair for maths."

yes, it's a huge amount of work. there is no A-level which would be a significant challenge for a student with a broad range of talents, with the possible exception of art/music for those who don't have a particular flair for them..I hated my ICT A-level, but it's been a very good exercise in motivation to keep it, do the appalling coursework and learn for those pointless exams - and that's why I the time I found out that it wasn't a very good course, the only other option would have been to drop it - and I hate loosing.

3) "Then German - he's from the Czech Republic - can we assume a head start?"

any linguist will tell you that English and German are much closer than Czech and German, being from a completely different language families..if you assumed that I'd speak German because of geographical location, I can assure you that my family lives in the opposite part of the country, close to Slovakia/Poland rather than Germany.

in fact, prior to my AS-level course I had studied it for less than 2 years for 3 lessons a week, and my German was, honestly, the worst in my class when we started..coupled with the fact that my English was far from fluent when I arrived (not a surprise given that I had not even visited an English speaking country before then), being taught German in English in such circumstances was..a wonderful experience (my German teachers: you rock)

4) The school had nothing to do with this. Yes, my teachers were great in supporting me, but they were very far from pushing me to do this - in fact, the opposite was occasionally the case. History, as well as Politics, at A-level are equally difficult or academically stretching as most of the other A-levels. Jumping through the loops all the way, reading one or two mark schemes the day before the exam, and if you have a flair for the subject, high UMS shouldn't be a problem.

5) On a final point, I came to the UK knowing very little about the system and at the time decided to do Maths, Physics, German, E&B, ICT. Since everyone does GS, so did I. In Y13, I picked up FM as an obvious choice and that seemed to be the final combination. Doing AFM was purely because of my interest in Mathematics and this decision was actually made sometime in March/April, i.e. 2 months before those exams. The decision to take Economics and Business separately was made even later, partially because of my curiosity about stretching myself in terms of exams, partially as a preparation for the AEA papers.

I'm not sure whether I'd make the same choices if I were to re-live that year again, and I'm not sure whether it was the best use of my time either. It was, however, definitely worth it and a very valuable experience indeed; more and above, with 100% certainly, I used my time more wisely than a great majority of other students. It's fair to express your opinion, but belittling what I've done without knowing anything about me and other like-minded people who've done similar things in the past, is very far from being fair play.


Jan's results are an interesting case study in the A-level debate. When I posted, I was not out to get at him personally. To start at the end, I am really sorry Jan feels belittled by my post. I hoped in my posts around A-level results time to raise some questions but did not mean to ridicule, so I apologise to Jan if he feels my comments were unfair to him.

However, he must be aware that his unusual experience raises questions. Is this all we can offer the brightest and the best of our sixteen and seventeen year olds - racking up a large number of related A-levels? My main perspective in writing the original post was to question the approach of the education system in dealing with exceptionally bright teenagers, and his reply really does contribute to this. For him, the challenge of A-levels seems to be one of burdensome work for work's sake, rather than an intellectually stimulating experience (apart from his German lessons!) In addition, he believes that most exams can be done by jumping through the loops all the way, reading one or two mark schemes the day before the exam. This is a very telling statement. In the current climate of criticism of the A-level system, it is up to teachers to think seriously about the guidance we give the gifted student.

A few specific points raised in his post:
- Obviously I was completely wrong in my assumption that Jan already spoke German.
- I know all about the demands of ICT A-level - and I am not surprised he hated sweating through 'the appalling coursework', and found himself having to exercise steely self-discipline in order to complete something onerous and not very exciting. To anyone else in a similar situation, I suggest you study Computing instead. You will find this more conceptually challenging and certainly more invigorating. (Oh, and why not drop ICT, or indeed any subject that turns out to be a mistake, after completing the AS? That's not an admission of defeat!)
- The triple combination of Economics, Business Studies, and Combined Economics and Business Studies is an official forbidden combination, sorry. I suppose this does not really matter to Jan as he did the extra two subjects simply as a bet and had plenty of other subjects under his belt. I can see that Jan was limited in his choices by the curriculum of the school, and that if he was sitting the AEAs in Economics and Business, it would be necessary to cover the extra content, so he might as well sit the A-level papers. In fact, doing the AEAs in Economics and Business seems a very worthwhile achievement and one that did not come out in the newspapers.
- However, I am not sure what Jan's argument against History and Politics is. I honestly think that there's more to it than read[ing] through one or two mark schemes before the exam. Even the very bright need to read in depth to score the highest UMS marks in History. I stand by my suggestion that to tackle either of these subjects (or indeed English Literature) is good advice for any student hoping to study at a Russell Group University.

In general, gifted students are always limited by the curriculum offered by their particular school. However, if the school is not able to stretch them, there are other options available. One is to study with the Open University while still at school. The OU now offers a wide variety of modules to sixth formers, who can be funded and supported through the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme.

I am very appreciative that Jan took the time to reply to my blog. My conviction that he is both brilliant and hardworking remain unchanged. I really do wish him well, congratulate him on his success, and I am quite sure his teachers at Bootham do, too. I know he will find Cambridge both a challenge and a delight, and a very different experience to A-levels.

But I will return to the main point of my original post. How do we advise exceptional students in the current A-level system? Do as many A-levels as you can?

After considering Jan's post, if I had a similarly motivated and talented young person in front of me, I would advise them thus. Do 'less, but better'; seek out challenging and appropriate subjects; look for extra-curricular opportunities that enhance your skills and allow you to diversify, and take the time to read widely both within and around your subject.