Monday, 21 January 2013

10 More Things to Keep a Snowbound Pupil Occupied...for the Sixth Former.

  1. Read a newspaper editorial (see for examples), and the newspaper coverage of the same story. To what extent does one relate fact without opinion, and the other give opinions without facts?
  2. Demonstrate (to yourself, for the intellectual pleasure of it) why Pascal’s triangle is composed of lines which are powers of 11. (The top line is 110, the next is 111, the third is 112 etc).
  3. Find 10 puns with which you could make light-hearted comment on a supermarket including horsemeat in their processed meat products. (“They are having a ‘mare with their burgers” etc).
    Alternatively, can you make a case FOR including horsemeat in processed meat products? (In general, arguing the case for something you disagree with is substantially more difficult than presenting your own views).
  4. Take an article from a respected publication (The Economist, The New Scientist etc), and highlight in different colours phrases or sentences which are historical narrative, those which are impartial analysis, and those which demonstrate (partial) evaluation and judgement. What do you learn about the intention of the writer? Now compare the balance of these contents with a piece of your own writing - what does this teach you?
  5. Work out which scientific equation is most worthy of inclusion in the National Curriculum – ie should be taught to all young people. Why that one?
  6. From your study of history, find a time when statesmen or other important decision makers have demonstrated that they have learned from history, and find five pieces of evidence to support that.
  7. Of all the books you have ever read, choose one that you would most highly recommend to your son/daughter when they are exactly the same age as you. Write the title and reasons on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope and keep it in a safe place.
  8. Find a work of art (painting, music, performance art) which makes your spirits soar, and which you would be prepared to contemplate every day for a year. Write down why in a digital diary entry for yourself in 12 months time, so you can see how you have changed next year.
  9. Consider the attribute of a plant or animal which you consider to me most astonishing in its capability. Compare, in writing, this ‘achievement’ of the natural world with what you consider to be the most significant achievement of mankind. Which do you consider greater?
  10. Work out the most significant and inspiring lesson you have had at school so far this year which has had no relevance to any examined courses you are currently studying. Write to that teacher to thank them for that lesson, saying why it affected you so positively.
There is no guarantee that any of these will make you perform better in your exams, but they will contribute to increasing your intellectual capabilities.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Ten Things to do While Stuck at Home Because of Snow.

  1. Review notes from last term: memory is enhanced by repetition – going over notes and (even better) writing revision notes will refresh memory, and help to get material into long term memory.
  2. Take the file used for a subject, and order it, creating a contents page at the beginning of every section, listing all the handouts and pieces of work within the section, and syllabus headings and subheadings – knowing which part of a topic any question is referring to, and where it falls in the grand scheme of things, is a very valuable skill in an exam when under time pressure.
  3. Turn linear notes on a topic into a mind-map – using different colours, and if possible images printed off the internet, and cut and pasted onto the mind-map.
  4. Write down questions to address to teachers: so that one to one time can be used wisely when the opportunity arises. It is good to aim for five questions in each subject.
  5. Find 5 pieces (words or phrases) of technical vocabulary in each subject that are not perfectly understood. (Any term that cannot be instantly and fluently defined orally is not perfectly understood).
  6. Try to set a short test for peers on the theme: ‘...what is the difference between...?’ picking two very similar or related ideas for each question. (eg ‘What is the difference between an excuse and a reason?’ ‘what is the difference between velocity and speed?’ ‘What is the difference between fixed and variable costs?’)
  7. Trawl through all written feedback given by teachers in their marking (or school reports). Note themes of similar comments and allocating one action for the next week to assist in reducing or eliminating this weakness. If unsure, take all written feedback and turn it into a wordle and see what jumps out.
  8. Take a question recently attempted, and seek to write a mark-scheme for the examiner to use – what knowledge is necessary to get 40% of the marks, and 60% and 80%? What would the A* candidate include/attempt that others might not?
  9. Download the specification for a course studied from the exam board website. Note the skills examiners are rewarding in the exams, contained in the specification preamble: evaluate own skills against these, and consider which areas currently present the strongest challenge.
  10. Download a past paper from the exam board website, and complete it. Having done this, download the markscheme and attempt to mark the work completed.
And finally.... don’t ever say again that you didn’t do any work because you didn’t have any to do! 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Hole in Education - Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fabulous account of the life’s work of one of the 20th Century’s greatest thinkers, and it ought to be read by everyone with an interest in making decisions.

Kahneman’s central premise – that humans have two separate mechanisms for making decisions, the instinctive (which he calls ‘System 1’) and the rational (‘System 2’) – is persuasive, as is his contention that bad decisions are made when one mechanism overrides the other, without our realizing it. His forensic analysis of how and why humans substitute a question they do know the answer to when faced with one they don’t is immensely revealing. As a textbook on decision-making, it is an astonishing work. Kahneman even reveals that he wrote a school curriculum, in Israel, on decision making. I would love to see what’s in that.

Our educational system allows us to teach young people to gather information – in the different forms in which it comes. We teach children to order and master that information. Older children learn diverse methods of analyzing information – and we teach them to evaluate it, too. But how much of our curriculum is devoted to teaching children to make decisions? How does schooling actually help young people to make decisions?

In its most pernicious form, the curriculum teaches young people that they have to guess what answer the teacher/examiner has selected as the correct one, and they have to express it in terms which have been decided on as the best terms in which to express it. But these answers are chosen often (as, of course, are the questions) because they are convenient: they allow marks to be given with the highest degree of objectivity, and therefore the lowest risk of (legal) liability.

We teach pupils to communicate in words, numbers, pictures, musically, and dramatically, and to engage in debate or dialogue. We teach them to take part in teams, the value of a discipline of improvement or exploration, to think or contemplate. But decision-making? Is anything more than providing adult role models, giving some scope for trial and error (particularly in the exercise of pupil-leadership) and leading pupils into greater levels of independence helping our young people to become better at such a vital skill.

So, here is the question I am left grappling with, six months after finishing Kahneman’s book. How can I – how can educators – enhance and improve the way that the experience of school teaches young people to make decisions? Are some subjects more likely to teach this than others? What extra-curricular experiences are most likely to enhance this capability?

One obvious answer to this last question is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, and particularly the need during expeditions to modify plans, to consider new information (‘The footpath marked on the map has disappeared!’) and to learn from decisions made under stress.

But what would a course in decision making look like? What sort of students would thrive on it? These further questions will pre-occupy me for a while, and I would be delighted to have contributions as comments below…

In the meanwhile, I shall be writing to Kahneman’s publishers about the Israeli curriculum.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Why Too Much Self-esteem Is Also Bad For You...

‘The greatest love of all’, sang Whitney Houston, ‘is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself: it is the greatest love of all’.
Reading The Narcissism Epidemic (by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) during the holidays, written by two American professors of psychology, suggests that these words were extremely well-written to describe our era – and its zeitgeist. The authors of this book explore the current obsession that self-esteem , not least in education, is key to humans’ success and happiness.
It’s true that we are constantly told by our culture that the more self-esteem you have, the better your life will be. Super high self-esteem must lead, it is assumed, to higher levels of achievement and higher levels of happiness.
What Twenge and Campbell find is this: there is NO statistical link between super-high self-esteem and success, or happiness. In fact they cite evidence of links between super high self-esteem and lower levels of success and happiness.
Super-high self-esteem is associated with having an idea that one is special, that one is entitled to success, that success is guaranteed, that riches, luxury, good relationships are the natural consequence of the individual’s attributes.
Super-high self-esteem is the consequence of – the authors write – a culture of self admiration. Self-admiration – or narcissism – is not only prevalent, it is practised by many people who act as role models in our society. As an example, they cite a well known celebrity who has a huge picture of herself in pride of place in her home, and who was found to have pictures almost entirely of herself on her phone.
Narcissists – and psychiatrists – are diagnosing increasing numbers of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder: describing this as a condition of poor mental health. And narcissists are more likely to seek to attract attention to themselves with risqué profile pictures on social networking sites, they are more likely to spend a good deal of time in front of the mirror, and they are more likely to expect to be heard, rather than to listen. They don’t sound like nice people – but a great deal of education is now geared to make individuals feel ‘special’: praise is universal, and often unearned, academic grades are inflated (cited of American secondary education, but surely as true in England, if not the UK as a whole), and the appearance of success is the over-riding goal of education.
So, if we are to have (or to teach) healthy self esteem, without being (or teaching) self-admiring, or worse, self-adoring (behaviour), how are we to do this? Twenge and Campbell draw a critical distinction between self admiration, and self exploration, and here lies the beginning of potential solutions.
Self exploration is trying to find the limits of one’s capabilities by trying as hard as possible at different things. Self exploration is what happens if you practice your musical instrument for two hours a day for a year – you find out how good you could be; or if you work as hard as you could at a subject you find difficult – you find where your limits really lie. Or, again, if you get really fit for a sports season, you find out just what level of performance you are capable of.
I once skied with an international skier: he encouraged us to spend our time ‘exploring our envelope’ on skis. He had read that the role of a test pilot when a new airplane is made is to find the limits of what it can do, and he encouraged us to do the same with our capabilities on skis. This is self-exploration, I now realise.
So, at New Year’s resolution time, perhaps it is a good time to challenge students (as I will in assembly next week) as to whether 2013 will be a year of self-admiration, or self-exploration. Will it be a year when skills in the close reading of poetry, or the understanding of the algebra of irrational numbers, or the implications of post-modernism, attract the same – or even greater – levels of attention than the student’s Facebook profile picture, or the ‘brand’ they project in social media space? Will our students explore their capabilities, and thereby grow them, or merely admire themselves, and stagnate?