Seriously considering a PGCE

Michael Gove is apparently in favour of atheist schools:

Answering questions from MPs on the Commons education select committee on Wednesday, Mr Gove said: “One of the most striking things that I read recently was a thought from Richard Dawkins that he might want to take advantage of our education legislation to open a new school, which was set up on an explicitly atheist basis.

“It wouldn’t be my choice of school, but the whole point about our education reforms is that they are, in the broad sense of the word, small “l”, liberal, that they exist to provide that greater degree of choice.”

In that case, your education reforms suck. An atheist school is a horrible idea, and any system that allows it is broken.

I don’t know why so many people think parents have a moral right to bring their children up in a particular worldview. Kids aren’t possessions to be toyed with – their education should be about how to think, not what to think. And the idea that kids should be segregated by whatever mystical beliefs their parents have is just vile. Given that the Tories aren’t actually stupid, or avowedly evil (well, not all of them) I assume that they have some rose-tinted view that children will grow up to be freethinking, independent adults no matter what their upbringing. We clearly need to introduce them to Psychology 101. And Northern Ireland.

And of course Richard Dawkins didn’t suggest an explicitly atheist school:

I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded.

Now that is a proper thing. I have no bloody idea why the entire education system isn’t built this way already, or why the Tories (and Labour)1 aren’t able to figure this out for themselves, but at least there’ll be the option – though only if we do it ourselves. I hate that UK education may come to the point where avowedly freethinking schools are a necessary counterpoint, but I’m worried there’ll be no other way.

  1. not much point even mentioning the Lib Dems []

Visiting humanist schools in Uganda

I’m going on an adventure next week. Somewhat unexpectedly, I’ll be travelling to Uganda to photograph three humanist schools.

The education system is Uganda is very much a work in progress. The government implemented free primary education a decade ago, and so created a follow-on demand for fee-paying secondary schools – a demand often met by religious organisations, who promptly take the opportunity to indoctrinate (because kids in a country where 35% live below the poverty line really need to be loaded up with some sin). But for plenty even this kind of education is a dream – many parents can’t afford school fees at all, or are forced to skip years while they save up.

To help with these problems, three humanist schools opened in the past few years. They offer scholarships to poorer children, while providing a balanced education. They’re called humanist to differentiate themselves from the religious schools, but are what we’d call secular – they’re neutral on the subject of religion, and teach open-minded critical thinking. Ugandan law requires they teach Christianity, but it’s presented as one of many philosophies, including humanist ideas. And of course the students study for GCSE equivalent maths, English, science, etc..

Isaac Newton High SchoolThe schools have very little money, and are mainly supported by the Ugandan Humanist Schools Trust, who manage donations and fundraising from Humanist organisations worldwide. The schools are improving, but none have running water, and only one mains electricity (another has a petrol generator). New Humanist magazine has brilliantly taken a particular interest in the Mustard Seed school – portions of the proceeds from Robin Ince’s Godless Concerts are donated – and as such it now has an intake of 160 students. But all the schools are very much in need of funds.

I’m hoping I can take some photos to help with this, and I leave next Tuesday. I emailed the Trust 10 days ago, asking if I could come along on a November trip, and was very kindly invited to come along to International Friendship Week. This was great, and more than I was hoping for, but gave me two weeks to get ready. It’s been a bit manic, but I’m almost there.

I’m pretty nervous – I’ve never been outside of the first world before – but excited too. We’ll be travelling to the three schools, and I’ll be staying at Isaac Newton High for a week. I may help teach, if I can be of use, but otherwise I’ll be hovering and learning how it all works.

This will also be my Major Project for my final year of uni. I wanted to do something useful, and this seemed entirely appropriate – I just hope I can produce something helpful. It will explicitly not an art project, though – any pictures will be used solely to help raise money and awareness for the schools.

Evolution in primary school science lessons

News came out this weekend that the theory of evolution is to be included in primary school science lessons for the first time. As of April this wasn’t the case, and the change is down to a successful campaign and a lot of hard work by the British Humanist Association – huge congrats to them for getting this through.

I left school knowing what vaguely what evolution was, but with no understanding of how it underpins all of biology. Now I don’t understand how you can teach biology without it. I remember GCSE biology just being a bunch of disparate facts about animals and plants. The closest we got to evolution was having it drilled into us that a) camels have large feet, as they’re adapted to the deserts, and b) polar bears have clear fur, the relevance of which is still a mystery1. These two facts were all we needed for the exam, so I duly wrote them down and paid no more attention. My science teacher obviously noticed this problem, and at the end of our final year gave a friend a copy of The Selfish Gene. Looking back, that was a pretty awesome thing to do. I didn’t find that book until three years later.

Hopefully these developments will see evolution built more fundamentally into the textbooks, and not just as another thing to learn.

  1. and, now I look it up, a bit more complex than is perhaps necessary for an introduction to evolution []

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or, 2000 years of Upper Class Twits In Charge)

In the introduction to An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, author John O’Farrell says he wrote it for ‘all those who weren’t listening at school’. I have to disagree. In my experience, here’s what school teaches you about history:

  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • During the blitz there was rationing, which meant there were no bananas.
  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • During the blitz they had Anderson shelters.
  • Henry VIII had six wives.
  • Victorian sitting rooms had chairs and desks and curtains and stuff.
  • Did I mention Henry VIII’s wives?

By the age of 14 I couldn’t give a toss about Henry VIII’s wives. They were the go-to topic for years, and it became dull as, well, they actually became my baseline for dullness. Sure, the curriculum eventually slipped in the Reformation, but without any explanation of what Catholic / Anglican / Protestant / Whatever actually meant it was all a bit abstract, and glossed over so we could quickly get back to the wives. Despite this, I took History GCSE. This was because of Mr Feldman.

Mr Feldman was a walking cloud of ash. Sometimes he couldn’t make it through a lesson without nipping into the store-room, emerging a few minutes later to indiscriminately fire a barrage of smoke particles into a room of children to whom nicotine was the equivalent of the Black Death. But he was a hell of a teacher. He’d stride about the room, gesticulating wildly as he told tales of heroism and national conflict, betrayal and sacrifice, war and nobility. The whiteboard would end up a chaotic scribble of maps, arrows and keywords. He’d tell of his visits to the locations of famous events, and how he stood in the actual spot where King Thingy fell to his death – or was he pushed? He was occasionally brusque, but you couldn’t deny his enthusiasm, and it was infectious.

One lesson stands out for me. Our curriculum, for reasons beyond understanding, skipped straight from the outbreak of the Second World War to the building of the Berlin Wall. It is obviously impossible to understand the latter without some understanding of the events of the former, and Mr Feldman was appalled. So, one lesson, we had an unrequired whirlwind tour of WW2, just because he thought we should know. It was fantastic. The kind of high-level overview you never get, because they’re too busy telling you about sodding bananas. The whiteboard devolved into anarchy as Britain retreated, and Germany expanded in all directions, before abruptly stopping as Russia started moving east, and then the Allies returned, and everyone’s converging on Berlin…

It was how history should be taught. You could go back for the details later – here was a simplified version of the entire event. But we only had this for WW2. Between Henry VIII and the beginning of the 20th century, we knew nothing. I finally realised this last month, and in an attempt to educate myself bought An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, purely because it looked ok on the shelf.

Turns out, John O’Farrell is a Mr Feldman. His book starts in 50BC, as Caesar tries and fails to invade, and ends in 1945 with the establishment of the NHS. And inbetween is a decent guide to the history of the UK – exactly what I wanted. Enthusiastic and funny, it whips through the centuries, picking out major characters and stories and introducing them with just enough detail to be interesting, but without getting bogged down in minutae. Henry VIII doesn’t get much space, because he wasn’t actually all that special. Lots of wives, and pissed off the Pope, but otherwise pretty dull. Plenty of British institutions get the same treatment, and it usually turns out that everything I thought I knew was wrong.

The Spanish Armada, for example: turns out, not a great victory. In fact, the battle was a fairly middling all-score-draw that would have likely seen the Spanish fleet eventually win, had the wind not turned to prevent their landing. So they wandered off for a bit, probably planning to return shortly, but said turning of the wind escalated rather, and the Armada sailed into one of the worst hurricanes ever recorded at such a latitude, sinking half the fleet and killing >2000 people. Lucky for the UK, yet touted to this day as Francis Drake = awesome.

And this is representative of much that happened under Elizabeth I. Her spin doctors were of such a high calibre that they’re still successful. Elizabeth killed more religious dissenters than oh-so-evil Mary. She took the country into massive debt by fighting unsuccessful wars. And was she a virgin queen? Of course not. Yet: at school, Elizabeth was lovely, Protestant and the change the country needed. Not so much.

Now, even a guide like this has trouble at times. There are a lot of Henrys and Edwards. I mean a lot. Too many to keep track of, if I’m honest. I just finished the book, and they’re already getting mixed up. Henry V = Agincourt; got it. Henry IV was…erm. Well, he probably lost to France, since they seemed to alternate…other than that, it’s kinda blurry. But that’s ok – it’s a high-level overview, and it knows you won’t remember everything, but you can get the gist then come back later to fill in the details. It’s the kind of book you need to read more than once, and thankfully there’s enough depth that this is possible. There’s an old claim that you only remember 10% of the details on an initial read, and that feels about right – I know I’ve already forgotten much of it. But I now have a rough idea of what went on over two millenia, which is a good start. Shakespeare’s Histories shouldn’t be a total mystery any more, even if I can’t remember quite which King did which thing. I’ll read it again in a month or so, and a bit more will stick. I think that’s the way forward, and it’s possible because the book is so readable.

It’s kept alive by many, many jokes, as well as occasional asides and meanderings, most of which make it very clear that John O’Farrell is a total lefty1. The class system features heavily: he repeatedly points out that most of the country’s revolutions and crises were rich people overthrowing other rich people – the working classes were left to rot whatever. He’ll frequently puncture right-wing ideas, pointing out, for example, that it was only with the advent of machinery that women started to spend time in the home rather than working alongside the men (if you weren’t rich, anyway) – the ‘traditional’ concepts of family life are only a couple of hundred years old. He’ll also sometimes veer into a cul-de-sac to discuss the value of learning history, say (just at the point where you’re despairing over yet another bloody Henry), or make vaguely political comments about the value of making analogies to World War Two in a world that’s very different (I let out a little cheer when he said we should ‘let it go’). Being rather a lefty myself, I enjoyed this a lot. Those of a more Conservative bent may object. But, given the verdict of history on right-wing attitudes, they probably won’t do it loudly.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a vague interest in history. It’s not that we weren’t listening at school, it’s that there was little to hear – and this book does its job nicely. Mr Feldman would be proud.

  1. actually, the subtitle might tip you off []

Odd reply from my MP over teaching evolution in primary schools

I recently emailed my MP to ask for his support in the campaign to include evolution in the primary school curriculum. I’ve emailed him a few times before, to no reply, but yesterday a somewhat curious letter arrived. It starts off pretty positive:

Let me say first of all that I support the teaching of evolution. In the modern era, the importance of science cannot be overestimated. It is critical that, from an early age, children learn the core principles of scientific thought and, more importantly, are instilled with an understanding of the way that science shapes our lives.

Great! That’s the spirit. Then there’s a quick dig at the government (he’s a Conservative):

I have a number of concerns about the Government’s proposals in general. I am concerned that the changes to the primary curriculum will lead to children learning less not more. It is also important to recognise that the move away from traditional subject areas will lead to a further erosion of standards.

Any argument with the word ‘traditional’ raises red flags with me, but whatever – I don’t know enough about the other proposals to comment. Then, though, there’s this:

It is important that children are educated to a standard where, should they wish, they can read about alternative theories and histories, thereby expanding independent thought. Given your strong views about the issue, I would recommend responding to the consultation [he gives the link]

Wait. What? ‘Alternative theories and histories’? Where did that come from? What’s an alternative history? What does this have to do with primary school curricula?

It’s probably innocuous, but is nonetheless strange. Perhaps he’s saying the education system should provide a solid grounding in fact so that children are well prepared for the ‘alternative theories’ when they’re older? It’s unclear, but it’s a touch worrying to see ‘alternative theories’ mentioned – this kind of tricksy language is more often used by advocates of intellgent design. I strongly doubt that’s the case here, and google doesn’t have any other suggestion, but I’ll keep an eye out.

Interestingly, he doesn’t actually state any explicit support for evolution in the primary school curriculum in the letter, but there’s a copy of a letter to Ed Balls in which he does. So that’s cool.

Charlie Brooker on Brain Gym

Is someone out there having Charlie Brooker’s babies? If not, we should get right on that. Here he is after watching Newsnight’s report on the Brain Gym, which is…I’ll let him explain:

Brain Gym, y’see, is an “educational kinesiology” programme designed to improve kiddywink performance. It’s essentially a series of simple exercises lumbered with names that make you want to steer a barbed wire bus into its creator’s face. One manoeuvre, in which you massage the muscles round the jaw, is called the “energy yawn”. Another involves activating your “brain buttons” by forming a “C” shape with one hand and pressing it either side of the collarbone while simultaneously touching your stomach with the other hand.

Throughout the report I was grinding my teeth and shaking my head – a movement I call a “dismay churn”. Not because of the sickening cutesy-poo language, nor because I’m opposed to the nation’s kids being forced to exercise (make them box at gunpoint if you want) but because I care about the difference between fantasy and reality, both of which are great in isolation, but, like chalk and cheese or church and state, are best kept separate.

Confuse fantasy with reality and you might find yourself doing crazy things, like trying to wave hello to Ian Beale each time you see him on the telly, or buying homeopathic remedies – both of which are equally boneheaded pursuits. (Incidentally, if anyone disagrees with this assessment and wants to write in defending homeopathy, please address your letters to myself c/o the Kingdom of Narnia.)

Brain Gym is a government-endorsed program. Doesn’t it break your heart?

RTF Lightroom M

My university’s library has a huge photography section, and I’m allowed to keep books indefinitely providing nobody else requests them. I checked out Martin Evening’s guide to Adobe Lightroom in late November, and quickly glanced at some issues that were confusing me at the time. The book has been in the ‘I should really read that properly’ pile ever since, until yesterday when guilt got the better of me. I moved it to the ‘take back to uni’ pile, then just before midnight started flicking through it. I was still going at 0200.

Adobe Lightroom is my favourite image processing program, and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of how to use it. I really didn’t. The Lightroom manual detailed a huge variety of tips and tricks, as well as a few features I’d somehow missed. It also took me step by step through a digital workflow, explaining when it’s best to make each adjustment, giving basic primers in tonal range and broadly indicating what I should be trying to achieve. For example, I now understand how Lightroom tells me about overblown highlights, know a quick way to temporarily view only these pure-white areas of an image, and can judge which to leave intact. I also now see that Lightroom’s tone curves are much more powerful than I realised, and are in fact superior to Photoshop’s. I’d only scraped the surface of their functionality before.

I wish I’d read this book months ago! I re-edited a batch of photos using the book’s workflow suggestions this morning, and they all looked much better. Embarrassingly so – I replaced their Flickr versions immediately. 

I should have known better. I’m reasonably proficient in Dreamweaver, and that’s entirely down to working through a huge manual when I bought the full version. Such complex software is fun to play around with, but playing can’t pick up design rationales and subtleties. Lesson re-learned.

Orals may be dropped from language GCSEs. Good.

The government is considering dropping oral tests from language GCSEs as they are ‘too stressful’, according to the BBC. The idea has been slammed by Ex-Ofsted-chief Chris Woodhead, but then Chris Woodhead’s disdain is traditionally a litmus test for good ideas, so that counts as a plus.

Is it a good idea? I don’t know enough about child psychology and the goals of the education system to make an informed decision, but I will say this: my German GCSE oral was by far the most terrifying experience in my school career. I was in the top set for German, with a great, non-scary teacher who prepared us for literally months before the exam, and I worked hard to get ready, yet I still remember the abject terror of waiting for that half-hour session. It’s on a par with my driving test as the most nervous I’ve been, and its memory affected my A-level exam: I wasn’t going to put myself through all that again, and I forced myself not to care. It was one of the few times I ever completely flunked an exam1.

For this reason I certainly don’t think the idea is ‘stupid’, as Chris Woodhead says. Other reactions on the page include ‘life is stressful’, which is pathetic: in my experience life is very rarely that stressful, and when it is we hate it. Or someone else claims the point of learning a language is to speak it, so what use is a GCSE without a spoken test? In reply I’d question whether such a stressful situation can possibly give an accurate account of a student’s ability – wouldn’t it be testing their ability to deal with (unrealistic) pressure as much as their language skills? Plus, they only want to scrap the exam itself – teachers would still assess oral language skills in other ways. The reactions overall suggest a fair amount of ‘I went through it, why shouldn’t they?’, which I despise.

The report suggests that teacher assessments could adequately replace the oral exam. Sounds reasonable to me. The more I think about it, the more I’m in favour.

  1. past tense as there are no exams in my degree – ra! []

An Islamic headteacher on the need for unquestioning teaching of Islam

Stephen Law is having an interesting discussion with the head of a UK Islamic school. Prof. Law quoted the head as saying “[t]he essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.” and suggested this was an intolerable system of education. The head’s response includes:

It is slightly absurd to imagine what approach we should have taken to teaching about Islam to these Muslim children if the objection is to us telling them that Islam is true. The reason we offer to Muslim children for accepting the truth of Islam is that this is what Allah wants us to believe, what he has written in the Qur’an, and also what the prophet Muhammad wants us to believe – him being the messenger of Allah. Are we really supposed to then say, “But you shouldn’t believe that just because we say so; you should make your own minds up”? That is not what Islam teaches. In Islam, there is no question about the existence of god, the validity of the Qur’an or the veracity of the prophet. Nor, given that, is there a sensible choice about being Muslim. It would be self-contradictory to teach Islam to children as a matter of choice based on personal opinion.

Isn’t that interesting? None of the slippery avoidances you find in Christian responses, it’s just straight out: our Holy Whatever says we are not to question it, so we won’t. Aside from the obvious objections, I wonder if he finds it coincidental that what he’d consider the most important concept in history just so happens to demand unquestioning acceptance. Why would the most important concept in history need to declare itself above the marketplace of ideas? It’s a ridiculous, desperate strategy, but one that unfortunately seems to be psychologically effective. The objections to The Golden Compass show the same lack of perspective, and I like the way this columnist puts it (via Pharyngula):

If your ancient, authoritarian, immutable belief system is threatened by a handful of popular novels, if your ostensibly all-powerful, unyielding creed is rendered meek and defenseless when faced with the story of a fiery, rebellious young girl who effortlessly rejects your stiff misogynistic religiosity in favor of adventure, love, sex, the ability to discover and define her soul on her own terms, well, it might be time for you to roll it all up and shut it all down and crawl back home, and let the divine breathe and move and dance as she sees fit.

Exactly. I’ve said it before, but it’s always worth repeating: The War for Children’s Minds is a bloody brilliant book. It doesn’t bash religion, it bashes teaching what to think instead of how to think. This problem seems to go hand-in-hand with religious education, but needn’t.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that Critical Thinking classes for secondary (junior?) school students would be the best education initiative in decades.

Secular education ‘politically impossible’

A Tyneside headmaster’s attempts to reduce the role of religion in his school have turned up some interesting insights into the process of educational lawmaking:

‘We wanted a fundamental change in the relationship with the school and the established religion of the country,’ said Kelley, talking about the proposals he put forward towards the end of Tony Blair’s premiership. ‘They accepted it would be popular but said it was politically impossible.’

Why impossible?

One senior figure at the then Department for Education and Skills, told Kelley that bishops in the House of Lords and ministers would block the plans.

Easy solution to that.

Religion, they added, was ‘technically embedded’ in many aspects of education.

Not sure what that means. Which areas? I don’t personally remember religion (read: Christianity) turning up much in my education, other than assemblies and incredibly-biased RE and PSE (‘personal social education’) lessons.

‘I feel that children have a right to not having a particular point of view,’ said Kelley. ‘They should not be promoted to a political party, nor should they to a religion. The daily act of worship is, I think, inappropriate at school.’ […] The schools, says Kelley, ‘directly or indirectly influence children into a belief that a particular faith is preferable either to other faiths or to a lack of faith’. He adds: ‘That is not, in my view, fair to a child and it is not offering them the opportunity to choose freely. The problem we are left with is a 19th-century architecture of education in a 21st-century environment.

Quite. I don’t understand why the comparison with hypothetical political schools isn’t a killer argument.

The CoE aren’t happy with the suggestion of reducing religion’s role in education. However, their argument doesn’t prove the point they think it does:

A spokesman for the Church of England said: ‘If he is arguing for a way for individual schools to opt out of those bits of the act he does not like that is not something we would support. Either overtly or by default, this country is still a Christian one.’

This has always been, and remains, a mind-bogglingly stupid argument. The possibility that religious education produces better behaviour, although probably not true and morally eviscerated by Stephen Law in The War for Children’s Minds, is at least mildly grown-up, but “things shouldn’t change because they just shouldn’t” is begging the question and doesn’t count as arguing at all.

This attitude, combined with the continued expansion of faith schools, is disappointing, but I’m optimistic in the long-term because the historical, moral and political arguments against them are so strong. An atheist and a Christian should come to exactly the same conclusion when it comes to teaching children: teach them how to think, and let them make up their own minds1. An education system weighed in any particular direction is clearly, unambiguously, wrong.

I have suspicions about the motives of informed people who suggest anything but a secular framework. It’s a plausible hypothesis that teaching kids to think critically leads to more atheist/agnostic/freethinkers than if you surround them with religious teachers and symbols. Hence the Pope and his laughable rejections of logic and reason as just other forms of indoctrination – clearly desperate and clutching at straws, but this sounds less mental than “do what I say or you’ll go to hell”.

There are, of course, plenty of very nice people, both religious and not, who will disagree. I may think they’re wrong, but convincing them often isn’t the real problem – it’s a common issue in arguments involving religion that you come across very pleasant people who get genuinely upset when their beliefs are criticised. But, to be unashamedly melodramatic, education is too important to the future of humanity for people’s feelings to get in the way of progress. I’m optimistic, but I don’t think it’ll be easy.

Link originally via B&W.

  1. sounds like an intelligent design argument. Isn’t. []