Thursday 17 April 2008

When carrying out experiments...

Not much experimenting in S104 lately, till today, measuring the specific heat capacity of water.

The first safety precaution "keep children and animals away while you are working" proved difficult to implement...

Saturday 12 April 2008

Same old, same old...

The Conservatives say they are changing. Well, in a way they are. The party of law and order, now doesn't seem to be the party of law. They'd rather give the government powers to weasel out of any inconvenient legal proceedings, using national security as an excuse.

There's a lot more here and here.

Friday 11 April 2008

Shocked by the Daily Telegraph....

Well, not the Telegraph so much as its readers. I was directed to a piece in today's Telegraph by Jeff Randall, "In a land without morals, it's no wonder children kill each other", a slightly confused "blame all today's ills on the sixties" fairly standard right wing flag waver.

That didn't bother me too much - ordinary stuff by a journalist earning today's pennorth with some rehashed tripe. What did shock me though was the comments that this piece attracted. I was not prepared for the volume and level of sheer virulence and bile that spouted out from the comments beneath this piece. I was bemused by the facft that the Telegraph comment board is moderated, and the moderator was quite happily letting all of these through. Several comments were along the lines of "I can't say what I really think, or I'll be moderated" from people who clearly didn't realise that the man with the finger on the button today was gleefully letting through any rant that came along, the more right wing and bilious the better.

A selection:

“And all the time we allow lawless immoral thieving Marxist scum to run our government then so such behaviour will be encouraged to continue”

“200,000 terminations a year? Since most will be to unmarried women that's 200,000 fewer feral youths. Crime prevention at it's best. The middle classes should be paying into a fund to help England out by offering more terminations to the oiks. This country could do with a few less mewling cabbages.”

“The lack of effective punishment is a major factor! If it is pain that they crave - bring back the Birch - they will soon lose the notion that only they can cause pain. I am aware of the outrage such a move would stir up with comment like "back to the Dark ages" etc - but some of these people are in the Dark ages and it seems that pain is the only thing they "respect".”

“This article hits on everything except the elephant in the room. The importation of massive numbers of immigrants from third world countries who have an average IQ of 85.”

“At last someone is talking sense. There are a feral packs of children wondering the streets. The answer more prisons and tougher penalities to protect society from this toxic slime.”

“What a scum laden country, the U.K. has become! I hope they all live next to those 60's liberals, or have they all pi**ed off to the Dordogne.”

“The increase in violent crime is due to west indian/ afro american gang culture, not forgetting drugs/ alcohol to facilitate. The UK is more effected then the rest of Europe because we have more exposure to these cultures through a common language and immigration. You would be surprised how many white/ asian children speak with west indian accents nowadays,”

“We need a war. A proper war where young men in massive numbers are given no choice but to go off to war and fight.”

“The problem is that 99.9% of the readers of your comment will think you are a nutter and fail to understand that they are part of the 99.9% of the population who are deluded. Pearls before swine etc. The pity is that you didn't include the scripture from proverbs:- Spare the rod and spoil the Child. Sadly this too would only add to the feeding frenzie of the 99.9% referred to above. Human rights nonesense and all that utter garbage. The Grammer School that I attended in the 50's required me to visit the Head Master on a number of occassions for a good caning. I then went to HMS Conway and deservedly recieved a regular flogging with the "ropes end". You haven't lived until you have a thorough going over with the "ropes end" and I would recommend it to all those who are required to learn how to love their neigbour as themselves. A large proportion being the 99.9% referred to above.”

“This is the reality of tribal multiculturalism in action-no common identity or shared values,no accepted authority structure or respected moral code -just an urban jungle, fed by small and large scale tribal,territorial,'warlord' dominated gangsterism. Downtown Mogadishu as a case study? Why is anyone at all surprised?”

“There is a sub-class of people building in our country. I use the term 'people' loosely. They are in fact not far removed from animals. They are illiterate, fornicating amoral rejects. These people are, frankly, not worthy of being called human beings. I am quite serious in my believe that these sub-class animals should be neutered to stop them breeding. Further more, if they do not attempt to reform their ways, and after due legal process, they should be put to sleep.”

“The more the hooligan element abort their offspring fetus the better as far as I am concerned. The social system will just end up paying for 'it's' support, whilst 'it's' breeders end up in prison or living off crime. Britain is more than on it's way to becoming the dustbin of europe.”

“I also believe that abortion used INSTEAD OF CONTRACEPTION is a prime factor in creating feral youth. When children can see mothers gleefully killing off their growing babies in the womb, why wouldn't they believe that killing is perfectly reasonable and permitted?????”

“They are black. It is as simple as that. The Kingston, Jamaica murder culture is now entrenched in British cities. Add to that black children and youths from Somalia and West Africa where it is de rigeur to chop people up and it's welcome to multi-culturism.”

“We need capital punishment, the cat, the stocks and the pillary,of course nobody has the guts to carry this out.”


“In these comments, no-one has mentioned one of the true culprits: feminism. Feminism sits there avoiding blame for the breakdown of the family, sexual immorality, the evil of elective abortions, dependence of families upon benefit and state aid at the expense of the taxpayer, parental neglect of children and womens' love of money rather than love of their offspring.”

I expect the odd bring back the birch from a red faced colonel somewhere in Tunbridge Wells and the odd it's all because of immigrants from the odd young white male completely ignorant of both economics and history, but I was quite shaken by the extent of the bile here, and the number of targets people took aim at. There is a disjunction here that I am becoming more and more conscious of, that there are many people in this country who are in fact very powerful but who feel disenfranchised. We so misunderstand the true nature of Britain and of Britain's place in the world today that we feel - wrongly - completely out of place. While I find most of the sentiments quoted above utterly repugnant, I have to grapple with the fact that people do genuinely (in most cases - there were some trolls about) feel as they speak. And that needs to be confronted, somehow, in every place and at every time.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Are we getting learning wrong?

I spent yesterday in the beautiful surroundings of the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I was at a conference on "Distance learning and development". There was a day of discussions and break out sessions followed by an evening reception with a keynote speaker Professor Sugata Mitra.

The day was taken up with earnest, sometimes entertaining, but all slightly hollow discussions about what universities could do to help in the international development process. There were some interesting accounts of work that was being done but overall there was a rather dull and corporate air about it. Most of the discussion seemed to start with the universities and assumed that the learners would somehow be shoehorned into what they had to offer. The market was not defined or brought into focus much at all. Symptomatic of this was a view I heard expressed by several different people, so much that it seemed to be a common understanding, that partnerships are terribly difficult and usually break down. It was suggested that this might be due to a lack of skill in facilitating cross cultural discussions, which I thought was a bit feeble. I wondered if the cause of some of the apparent breakdowns was that the institutions hadn't worked out what the point of the partnership was. Nobody seemed to be starting with what students do and what they want. Lunch was nice though, and I got some networking done.

The evening session, though, turned all of this on its head. I had never before heard of the Hole In The Wall project, or of Professor Mitra, but I'll never forget either of them. The original idea was simple - put a computer in a hole in the wall in a public place and see what happens. His first few experiments were in India. What happens, he found, is that children take control of it, and do all sorts of learning that you would think they would be incapable of. The key to the success of hole in the wall computers is twofold - firstly the children are completely in charge - there is no agenda, no curriculum, and secondly, learning is done in groups and is collaborative.

When Prof Mitra originally put a computer in a wall on a town street, the spontaneous reactions of the people who found it were to use it in a public way; children came and tried it out, played with it, found things out, in twos, threes, fours, groups of any kind. On finding out that it worked, Prof Mitra started to raise the barriers. He put one into a classroom and gave the children a tricky problem to solve - and found that they solved it eventually through a collective process of discovery. He got to the point of trying to set a problem that they could not solve in order to test the boundaries of this form of learning. He downloaded some difficult material on biotechnology, all in English, a foreign language to the children he gave it to. He locked the computer in a room in the school they were in, and he gave the key to the children. When he returned a few months later, he asked them what they had been able to learn. They said they'd learned nothing, it had been very difficult, they couldn't understand it. They talked some more,and Prof Mitra asked again if they'd learned anything, and a girl said, "Well, if you replicate defective DNA you get genetic diseases, but apart from that, nothing." he investigated further with this girl who showed him the things she knew - she showed him material on Alzheimer's disease, and, when he asked what it was, she said, "It's complicated, but it's why old people forget". So, even when he made things as difficult as he could for these very young children, they found ways to make learning happen. The girl in this story was particularly interesting - she had started out with a couple of boys, but the boys had said to her "We'll do this.You're only a girl,you won't understand". So she had said to them, "I'll come back when you're gone then". And she did return, determined to prove them wrong.

Prof Mitra is now at Newcastle, and has been working in the neighbourhood there. He was invited to a primary school in Gateshead (as he cheerily put it, "the remotest of the remote places I have been to"). The children he worked with there, aged around 10, had been beneficiaries of the one laptop per child scheme, but they were not using them. Mitra set up a challenge. He devised six GCSE level questions on science, the environment and such issues, and he told the children there was only one rule - they had to work in groups and there was one laptop per group. They settled into groups of four, and, completely undirected apart from that, all but one of the groups solved the problems. The first did it in 20 minutes and the rest all within an hour. The group that didn't consisted of one girl and three boys. As soon as the exercise began, the boys all went to the toilet and did not come back. The girl tried on her own but was unable to make progress.

These examples are strong proof that learning works well when self directed and even better when done in groups. A noticeable finding from some of the hole in the wall studies was that only a small group would be actively involved in working the machine or making suggestions from close by, but that a larger group standing by but contributing relatively little also gained knowledge and expertise.

So, as Prof Mitra said, maybe one laptop per child is a bad idea. How much are we in the west preventing learning happening by individualising it as much as we do?

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Same old excuse

A short diversion from watching what could be either a gentle pas de deux as Mugabe exits Zimbabwe, or something rather bloodier, I was pleased to read that Northern Rock intend to repay me (as a taxpayer).

I was less pleased to learn that they plan to reward Adam Applegarth for having led them into this fix by paying him £785,000. And they trot out the same hoary old excuse - they're legally obliged to, because it's in his contract. Why is it in his contract??? Because they put it there in the first place.

I'd dearly love to be at the meeting where NR or any one of the dozens of other companies is appointing somebody.

Interviewer: "So, we'd love to have you aboard then".

Interviewee; "Usual terms then?"

Interviewer: "Oh yes, of course. Got the rubber stamp here somewhere. "We guarantee to pay you an outrageous sum of money when you leave, even if it's because you've completely screwed the company, and even the taxpayer." Doesn't bother me. I'm on the same terms. Ha ha."

Interviewee: "Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha." All the way to the bank.

Applegarth doesn't even need it. He has already been richly rewarded for running Northern Rock. So I assume he's got some money put by - enough for a bit of champagne and caviar for a while. If he's so incompetent that he hasn't, then why on earth was he put in charge of Northern Rock? So why does he need a whacking great pay off for failure, on top of his whacking great salary?

Anybody with any sense of shame would have refused it, particularly when they knew that their actions were going to cause a lot of other people to lose their jobs, and be paid off with a lot less for not failing. But I don't expect Mr Applegarth has any shame at all.