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Monday, 14 April 2014

Safety of Life at Sea ...

Today marks the one hundred and second anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The White Star liner was, in First Class, the epitome of luxury, but, like most of her contemporaries, designed to carry a much larger number of Third Class passengers. That was where the money really came from for the shipping lines.

We remember the Titanic because of the 'celebrity' names that went down with her, and, because she made the headlines, of the fact that she changed the 'Rules' applicable to such ships in future. She was not the 'greatest maritime' disaster, and, as we have recently been forcibly reminded, she certainly isn't the last either. With the centenary, we are once again seeing a resurgence in all manner of 'consipracy' type theories about why she sank. Everything ranging from blaming Winston Churchill for her 'lack' of lifeboats (she carried three times as many as the regulations required - enough capacity for around two thirds of her people), through an assertion that her builders used 'bad steel' and even that she was in fact the Olympic, and the owners were trying to claim the insurance.

A great deal is made, in recent years, of her watertight subdivision, which is acknowledged as inadequate. In fact both Olympic and Britannic (and all the big Cunard liners of the time) were immediately taken in hand quietly and modified to address the identified problems. The sinking did give rise to changes to the Board of Trade Rules for passenger ships, and, more importantly, brought about the earliest 'international' agreement on Safety of Life at Sea which has become known as the SOLAS Rules now promulgated by the International  Maritime Organisatioa The latest study actually concludes that there were no more icebergs adrift that year and at that time than usual - in fact it was an unusually quiet year for them.

Deficient though her compartmentation was, and we must remember she wasn't designed to stay afloat with more than four compartments flooded, she had six 'open to the sea' after the collision, and probably two more damaged. The fact she stayed afloat for four hours after the collision says a great deal for the design. The real tragedy is that so few obeyed the order to abandon ship.

In other words, it was sheer bad luck that she found the one that sank her.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The wheel turns slowly ...

As someone who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s I sometimes look back and wonder at the hubris that sprang from the 'triumph' over Nazism and Japanese expansionism, which coupled with the Doomsday angst of the Cold War, to produce the world we live in now. As the saying is; "We didn't see THAT coming!" Mine was probably the last to grow up with teachers and parents word being 'law', in a world where 'drugs' were used by losers and idiots and we recycled everything glass, and even tin cans. Compost was something you made yourself if you were a gardener, and you didn't go to the supermarket for your groceries, meat, spare tyres, car parts and everything else. Even dog and cat food was bought raw from a butcher, and cooked, then minced by hand and sealed into 'preserve jars' and stored in the refrigerator.

Fresh vegetables came in bulk from the local 'German' Market held every Saturday in the Municipal Market Halls, which often supplied a plump fresh chicken for our Sunday dinner. Chickens and eggs were all 'free range' in those days, and, yes, not cheap. I look back in amazement now that roast chicken was our 'luxury' once a week, and we ate stews, meat loaf, fish pie and many other dishes which 'stretched' whatever meat was available. My grandmother (who lived above us with my grandfather) baked biscuits, cakes and other treats, and made jam - her speciality was orange marmalade - and also pickled and preserved a lot of the vegetables. Peas came in the pods, in large string sacks, and my brother and I had the job of shelling them and storing them in large glass storage bottles. Beans also had to be cut and the 'string' removed so they could be stored and there was very little went to waste. It wasn't that we couldn't afford the odd bit, it was more a case of being very aware that by some standards, we were very well off, and waste was definitely something to be avoided.

Groceries were bought daily from the local greengrocer who also stocked a range of tinned and bottled goods, liquor came from an 'off-licence' and meat from a local butcher (who happened to be my uncle). Fish we bought fresh from the fishing boats, or at our local fishmonger, milk was delivered in a hand drawn cart and the empties collected, washed and refilled, as were almost all other bottles. We could make a bit of pocket money going round looking for 'lost' empty cold drink bottles and returning them to the shops who paid 1d (One whole Penny!) per bottle. But then, a Mars Bar about three times as big as the ones you get now, cost 6d and a slab of Cadbury's chocolate cost 2s 0d (Two shillings, or twenty-four pennies, for the post metrication generation!). Wages were, by todays standards, low - my father earned only Thirty-two Pounds, ten shillings (32/10s/0d) a month and my mother around Twenty Pounds. Out of that they paid the rent, fed and clothed my brother and I and ran a car. There were few 'luxuries' - but heck, we had plenty and appreciated what we had.

Looking back I can now see the gradual change that came over our world, starting in the late 1950s, probably around 1958/9. First came the supermarket. Instead of carry a basket up to Henry's Shop as it was known locally, we all ended up going to the supermarket on Saturday after the German Market. Then we had to carry the shopping out to the car in the large paper bags. It wasn't long and 'Henry's Store' was downsizing, then closed. Our trips to the Market became less frequent - usually only now for the occasional fresh chicken. After all, we could get everything we needed at the supermarket - and it was cheaper.

Somewhere along this road, cold drinks stopped coming in glass bottles. First they went into tins - actually aluminium, and later into plastic 'bottles' which you threw away. Convenient, yes, but now we had a rubbish problem. Being a 'free-range' kid, something else I noticed was the way in which suburbs and townships were expanding. By the time I left school, a lot of the places I'd hiked through as a Scout were now covered in houses, laid out as townships and simply no longer 'wild space'. That accelerated from around 1965 and by the time I married whole tracts of land I'd camped on, or visited or known as farmland was covered in houses. And that brought with it the first 'ecological crisis' - rubbish.

Between 1945 and 1965 we'd somehow managed to shift from a society that minimised waste, recycled as much as possible (even clothing was 'passed down', collars and cuffs 'turned', shoes resoled and so on) to one which threw everything away at the first sign of wear, or the first sign of an 'improved' version, and the 'consumer' society took off. Great for the profits of the companies feeding this, not so good for the animals now being 'factory' farmed as things to be bred, fed, slaughtered and packed for the supermarket without compassion. Some say we turned the African Slave Trade into an 'industrial' process - you should see how we treat animals in our 'consumer' desire for cheap excess.

The first indication that something was going very wrong was the streamers of discarded plastic shopping bags adorning every fence around our cities (I grew up in Africa in case readers don't know) and the waste dumps began to overflow. It got worse, waste simply couldn't be cleared fast enough in some areas, and most of it was ecologically non-degradable. I hadn't been in the fire service lonbg when the first recycling businesses started to spring up, someone having realised there was more to the old Yorkshire saying of "where there's muck, there's brass" than just a quaint expression. At first though, they could only handle paper and clothing, but gradually that extended into other things.

For some of us, it was funny to watch as the wheel turned slowly back to doing things we remembered as kids as being 'normal'. This is why, now resident some six thousand miles north of where I was until 1987, I sometimes find it annoying to be lectured by soime snotty nosed 'Green' clutching his/her iPad/iPhone/Android/(Insert Name of Latest Gizmo Here) and dressed in designer jeans, teeshirt and synthetic jacket and expensive trainers, about the need to 'save' the planet by cutting down my 'consumerist' lifestyle. I should laugh, after all, my wife is constantly nagging me about wearing shirts I bought almost twenty years ago, or my extreme reluctance to give up perfectly serviceable furniture to the Crunchy-Munchy truck when I'm damned sure someone, somewhere out there would love to have it and use it.

Yes, it is convenient to be able to go to the supermarket and buy cheap produce. It is convenient to be able to discard my drinks carton/can/bottle, but there is a hidden cost to all this 'consumerism' and it is one we all end up paying. Yesterday I raised the issue of energy, and here again, I must point out that back in the 1950s, our power was locally generated by a small coal burning power plant (as Josephus pointed out, the coal creates steam, which turns the turbines, which ...) and our home had only one power socket per room, one central light fitting and in the kitchen we had a grand total of two power sockets, the light and an electric stove! Luxury. Power was expensive, and we didn't 'waste' it. If you left a room, you turned the light off. Nor did you waste water. the supply was metered and my father was always quick to 'have a go' if the monthly bill was higher than usual.

I think we have reached a turning point as a society. The straightforward 'consume-'til-you-bust' model is broken. The model most 'Green' organisations promote is unworkable and unsustainable with our populations at present levels. Somewhere between the two we need to find a balance, consume less, recycle more efficiently (I've just watched a perfectly good lounge suite be destroyed by the Crunchy-Munchy truck - one which, if there was a decent furniture recycling system in place would have been cleaned, any defects restored, and passed to someone who needed it) and relearn the art of living, rather than existing in a constant rush.

Yes, the 1950s were probably the apogee of the western dream lifestyle for many, but the naked consumerism that began in the 1960s is not an ideal model either. As Fagan says in Oliver Twist, "I t'ink I better t'ink it out again". Perhaps not me, but perhaps some of those very clever people in the corridors of power - assuming they can stop gourging long enough to do so ...

Mr Cameron? Mr Milliband? Mr Clegg? Frau Merkel? Anyone?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The High Cost of Green

Germany was very quick to shut down their ageing nuclear generating plants in the wake of Fukushima, driven to a large extent by the hysteria whipped up by Greenpeace and the Green Party here, both of which have long anti-nuclear credentials. The problem was, of course, how to replace them. All the 'renewable' technology is expensive, ecologically extremely damaging in the places where the necessary minerals have to come from, and needs to be supported by more 'conventional' technology. Plus, of course, the distribution 'grid' was not designed for rapid switching from one source to another, or to distribute power across very long distances.

Anyone familiar with electricity distribution and generation knows that ideally one has the generating station and the user as close as practicable to one another as possible to maximise efficiency. The greater the separation, the greater the power drop across the 'net' and the less efficient the whole thing becomes. Less efficiency also means more cost. And that is what is currently exercising the German government, industry and commerce - and the ordinary people more than anything else.

In the last sixteen years 'energy' prices have gone up exponentially for the ordinary householder. The rise starting in 1998 is due mainly to the drive to switch from coal and oil to wind and solar, but is now further complicated by the rushed closure of the nuclear plants in 2011. For the ordinary householder electricity has risen from €0.17,11c per kW/hr to €0.28,73c per kW/hr (3.5% per year). The main reason for this is that the biggest users - heavy industry - are being subsidised in order to protect jobs. To hold their costs low (and protect the employment of the individuals who pay for household use) the cost of the 'Greening' of energy is being passed to the private individual.

The problem for the 'Greens', most of whom are middle to upper income earners or students and others on 'supported incomes' is that the larger population has noticed, and are starting to complain bitterly. Their complaint is, as the Chancellor, Frau Merkel acknowledges, justified. But now everyone is between a rock and a hard place. Efforts to reduce energy use have failed, and failed spectacularly. Resistance to building more windmills is stiffening, with increasingly angry exchanges between rural communities and city dwelling Greens and energy chiefs who want to cover every landscape with towering windmills and, of course, the power lines for distribution.

The government here is acutely aware of these concerns and is trying to find alternatives. They are also very aware of the fact that a large slice of the gas used in generating and heating of homes comes from Russia - a particularly tricky source at the moment - while we are actually sitting on vast quantities of a material that sends the Greens into a frenzy - brown coal. Ironically most Green campaigners have failed to realise that diesel and gas turbine generators are being installed to 'support' their beloved 'renewables' while they furiously oppose the building of new clean technology conventional power plants. And don't even mention anything nuclear ...

So the costs continue to rise while the politicians struggle to balance the need to ensure a stable and secure power supply, the Greens continue to dream of 'restoring' the climate to a non-existent idyllic past 'norm' and the rest of us pay. The greatest irony is that the poorest members of society are, in effect, paying proportionately more for this than those who so passionately enforce their vision of a 'better world' on the rest of us. As they say, there is the view from the Ivory Tower, and then there is reality.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014


The Yokohama IPCC conference has now published its annual conclusions, which, not unexpectedly, are the usual "it's worse than we thought" with the usual fanfare. Of course, the western media have paraded the usual 'Green experts' - notably all from Western Nations' - against background shots of steaming cooling towers at power stations, bleating about how we are all going to drown/choke/die of starvation. Once again I am struck by the fact that the UN 'experts' are all drawn from radical Green, 'Liberal' or decidedly Left-leaning 'developing' nations or ideological organisations (the chairman of the IPCC panel is from Nepal and has pronounced views on 'Social Justice' and 'wealth redistribution').

Reading the reports of their deliberations and seeing the photographs and televised sessions, one does have to laugh at the irony of their railing against 'Big Oil' consumption by the 'Industrialised Nations' - shorthand for 'The Western Democracies' - while sitting on the chairs which would not exist without the hydro-carbon industry, and carrying laptop computers, smart phones and a plethora of other gadgets that could not exists without oil, or the 'energy' they want everyone to shut down.

I have said it before, and I continue to say it. The climate is changing. What I don't believe is that there is a single driver - CO2 and related trace gases - pushing it. This focus on one aspect is blinding the world to several much larger, and, I believe, far more pertinent, problems. Killing the western industrial base and 'redistributing' its wealth won't reverse the climate change, nor will it fix the problem. If anything it will make it far worse. I will cite an example of what I mean.

In 1982 the world watched in horror as a major famine developed in Ethiopia, and we were bombarded by images of starving and dying children. Various celebrities and pop-stars rushed to respond with 'Band AID' and raised millions, sending in emergency food Aid, medical assistance and so on. What I see nowhere in the media today is the fact that Ethiopia, Somalia and a couple of their neighbours have trebled their populations, famine is again endemic, but, instead of reorganising and addressing the root problem the local governments and the UN are pouring even more 'Aid' in and sustaining the problem.

Yes, humans do impact the climate, but in ways I don't see anyone discussing. In the UK and Europe, flood plains are being built over. Even where we have not built in a flood plain, we pave vast areas, reducing the land's ability to absorb the water and this increase the 'run off'. Greenpeace and other 'ecological' organisations have their placemen in the Environment Agency who block any attempt to get sea defences rebuilt and maintained, or to have drainage channels dredged and rivers cleared - so flooding does increase. Britain's population has trebled since the 1940s, and housing, with all the additional paving and run-off from drainage has as well.

In the Indus valley, millions of people are tilling, building and paving the flood plain, and historians would know that the events of a couple of years ago were a repeat of an event on the late 1880s. On that occasion the flooding displaced huge numbers of people and killed thousands, but we didn't have the mass media and television to beam it into everyones home. Ergo, in the modern mind it didn't happen. Even the Band AID crisis in Ethiopia is now on the edge of memory. Most of those now marching for 'action on the climate' or rushing about symbolically turning off lights to save the planet weren't born when it happened.

Another of the ironies of the 'Green' campaigning is their refusal to accept the need to adapt our food production. Far too many seem to be wedded to the idea that the world can be returned to some sort of subsistence economy with cottage industries, barter and mutual ownership of everything. They seem to be dreaming of a world that has never existed, and probably can never exist. The main objection to GM foods is always presented as 'ecological and health risks' but the truth is these have been addressed comprehensively. The real reason they object is actually that the companies that have done the research and invested vast amounts of money developing grains that need less water, produce higher yields, have less gluten, more Vitamin A or D and are less susceptible to destruction by insects, will 'make a profit' from their work. It comes across very strongly that their objection would be instantly withdrawn if Monsanto, DuPont and others handed everything over to the UN or some other 'non-profit' organisation to be distributed 'free'.

I firmly believe that we must adapt if we are to ride out the effects of Climate Change. My travels to some of the supposed 'beauty' spots and 'tropical paradises' - probably because I haven't gone as a 'tourist' have shown me the image of 'Paradise Lost' with fouled rivers running with raw sewage, forests decimated, not for western profit, but for firewood for exploding populations, beaches littered with plastic and other waste, and animals being poisoned, shot and driven to extinction as ever increasing numbers of people try to scratch a living from ever decreasing areas of usable land.

Sadly, I think I may saying the unsayable, but I think we are looking the wrong way on climate change.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Debating Europe

I was interested today to see an item from Sir Richard Branson, stating his belief that the UK needs to stay in Europe. He makes a good economic case for it, and he is not alone. I note that the body that represents the major British companies makes the point that thousands of jobs and a large amount of the UK's income would be in danger if the UK decided to leave the EU. Not unexpectedly, on such a polarised subject, the comments appended to Sir Richard's well thought out argument range from the downright rude and typically 'anti-wealth' sort, full-on anti-EU in any form, through the 'it's-all-a-Nazi-plot-and-we'll-beat-them-again-in-a-fight-for-our-freedom', to the supportive.

We do need to get a more balanced debate going on this. I note most of the extreme anti-EU/anti-anyone-pro-EU comments seem to come from typical 'tabloid' type readers, but I dare say this is a generalisation which may be unfair. There are, of course, some very well informed people on the anti-EU side of the argument, and they are worth reading and engaging. At the other end of the spectrum there are others who feel the debate can't be had at all, and shouldn't be, and the whole does seem to be complicated by our politicians inherent ability to obfuscate, conceal motives and generally not play with a straight bat. Plus, the Whitehall penchant for using every EU Directive to 'gild the lily' and gold plate their badly written and often conflicting 'regulations'.

There are good arguments on both sides of the debate, not least being that the Pound Sterling is a very strong currency at present, and any attempt to bring it into the €uro is likely to cause major problems. There is also the problem of England's, in particular, ancient legal system which is at odds with the systems in use in Europe. The funny part of that is that many in the UK think that the European systems do not have the same 'protections' built into them as is the case with English Common Law - and they are wrong. If anything most European systems are stricter and more demanding on standards of evidence and protection of the innocent. Some even give the victims of any crime a say in court with the victim having counsel alongside the Prosecutor. Where there is a misunderstanding on this in the US and the UK is that there are no Juries, but there is an extremely rigorous review of the evidence for a prosecution at each step of the way - so when someone is finally accused and brought to trial, the evidence is generally pretty strong. Of course there are failures - but show me how the English or the US system is free of error.

Put simply, the UK system allows the courts to determine what the relevant law means in most cases, and builds up a body of 'Case Law' which is used in all future cases involving that legislation. In Europe the law means what it says and the application of it is left to local enforcement, with the court acting in a more refereeing capacity to determine the 'degree of guilt' involved in the breach of it. Thus, while most EU member states take a 'directive' and paste it into their statute books, in the UK a two page Directive can become a hundred page document full of if, but, maybe and 'wriggle' space. As a lawyer friend once remarked, it is the principle of English Law that if it isn't specifically forbidden, it is permissible, and regulations are always read looking for a way to avoid compliance. I suspect this is what frightens many on the 'anti-EU' side of the debate - they don't want to give up being able to evade complying with anything they can.

Recently there has been much debate about the UK taking the same position as Switzerland or Norway and being 'affiliated' to the EU as part of a trading bloc, but not within it. That does overlook a couple of elements, the first being that Switzerland is now having to open up more of its activities to scrutiny, without really having much influence in the affairs of those demanding it. The reason is that they have enjoyed being a Tax Haven, and now the chickens have found a roost. Germany bought a CD quite openly and discovered the extent of tax evasion by people who, frankly, should know better. One has now been convicted and will spend three years in jail, and repay the €28 million he evaded. Even Norway is finding itself having to comply with EU regulations in return for its 'special' status, and I am convinced that they and the Swiss will eventually join up fully.

A part of the argument that, for me, makes much more sense, is that of sheer size as a trading bloc. Britain has lost almost all of its heavy industrial capacity, for reasons I won't enter into here, and is no longer self-sufficient in food or energy production. It is possessed of a welfare system that is more generous and more expensive than anyone else's and its politics and the penchant for boycotts, sanctions and so on among sections of its body politic, have isolated it from many of the markets it enjoyed up to the 1950s. Yes, we are a nuclear power, and we have the four ISBN submarines to prove it, even though, under Mr Blair, and now Mr Cameron, we don't have a full outfit of missiles for all of them and none actually carry a full complement of warheads anyway. Our Fleet has been run down and reduced to the point, almost, of being a coastal defence force, with fewer Type 45 destroyers than we actually need, and most of its ships so specialised they are probably not suited to the types of operation they are now called upon to conduct - such as anti-piracy patrols. Our Army is being further reduced, from 102,000 to 82,000 and the plan is to increase the 'part-time' soldiers of the TA to 30,000 to make up the difference. Then there is the question of the RAF. Some of their aircraft cost almost as much as a small ship, and they've been cut as well.

So how do those who argue that 'Britain will stand alone again against the Fourth Reich' propose to do so? With what? The days we could turn just about anyone into a sailor, soldier or airman, churn out destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers, tanks, bombs, shells and aircraft in weeks or months are gone. The shipyards, factories and resources are gone, and even in WW2 Britain never actually stood alone - she had all her colonial and Dominion and Empire Forces totalling almost a million men, plus their factories and resources to call on. It really is time to drop that particular pipe dream. Those days are over, we are a small, overcrowded, and probably over governed island, a small and increasingly insignificant fish in a world which sees one of our former 'possessions' now operating a larger and more powerful fleet than our own.

As I see it, Britain needs to think again about our relationship with Europe. We can be a part of it, and yes, it does need to be restructured and reformed, or we can be a small and largely annoyingly irrelevant offshore refuge for tax evaders and destination for tourists. True, we have some oil and gas reserves offshore (and possibly on land) but then there is that welfare bill to pay. If we join Europe properly, and play it to our advantage, we can continue to exert a powerful influence in the world alongside the rest of Europe. Together Europe has a better punch in terms of Defence, in economic clout (why do we think the US finacial markets expend so much effort talking down the €uro?), in terms of political punch and in manufacturing output. But, we need to look very carefully at what does work for everyone in the UK, and what could be made better. Our biggest problem is we think in the short term only, this month, this quarter, this year - we need to break that mould and find a better way to think and plan. We need a vision.

Sir Richard's 'vision' (with many other entrepreneurs and businessmen) is to stay in Europe and to find a way to make a United Europe work for everyone. We can embrace that, or we can turn inward, to a pre-Tudor "Little England". I know which one I prefer.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Science versus Dogma; The Teaching Methods versus Learning Dichotomy

Some days ago, my good friend Josephus, a man some may know, very well versed in the subject of 'teaching' and 'learning', sent me an article from The Spectator. Somewhat provocatively titled "Teacher Trainings War on Science", it discusses the conflict between what is taught in teacher training colleges and courses today, with what scientific studies of how children learn tells us about how best to teach. For at least the last fifty years, teachers have been taught, and curricula arranged, around the concept of 'facilitating learning' and 'encouraging' development by surrounding a child with tasks designed to expose them to information and knowledge which, so the theory goers, they will successfully 'absorb'.

My own experience at school rather inclines me toward the scientific results, which is that the best way to impart the basic knowledge is by 'rote' and 'lecture' or 'I tell; you listen and absorb' sessions. Once the key knowledge is in place, the wider skills of application, understanding, analysis and so on can be developed. Now I have to confess that I am in two minds about some, at least, of this. Again, my own experience suggests that MY learning style (and I stress it is individual) is that I learn best as part of a group. Certainly in my primary school days, a lot of this was learning by 'rote' with the whole class reciting the Multiplication Tables, or following the teacher's pointer as he or she had us read words from a blackboard, or do sums and so on. We learned to recognise certain relationships between numbers and sets of numbers or letters. Unconsciously, we were learning to apply the basic knowledge we'd acquired by 'rote'.

Josephus, in his note accompanying this wrote - 
I'd get boring if I tried this one, a result of being an BEd undergrad in the early 70s, two years of Masters research mid/late nineties into curriculum design and seven years of EdD post-grad research more recently.
The two ideas that have influenced me though are firstly, the words of a fellow student at Birmingham who, like me, focused on working professionals (Nurses) rather than children.  She told us one day that her faculty had just commissioned a series of six, new-build, tiered lecture theatres (I had told our group how the ones at the College were being used less and less as the government had told us that "lectures don't work.") for the first-year nursing undergrads.  Apparently, in the seminar and study group environment of the first of the then "new" nursing graduate courses, all the (mostly young girls) could contribute was a discussion about their mobile phones, so semester one of the course became didactic knowledge transfer in the lecture room, lecture wall to wall week after week; semester two could then have discussion groups developing understanding from the knowledge imparted in those lectures.
The second one is from my favourite educational psychologist, still not popular but more approachable in modern translations (He was a pre-Stalin era Russian.) 
"Practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless.  A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrotlike repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum."
Vygotsky, L. (1986)  critical analysis of thought and language  MIT Press; Boston, Mass.
The third question I often dwell upon relates to several photographs of "learning environments" that I used for some outline research in 2006,  most people I surveyed who could read, write and count, preferred the image of 1950s children sitting at attention, some with hands on their heads, to the brightly decorated, small group tables of the modern primary school room when asked to think about multiplication tables. 
Now, according to the scientific study, that acquisition of the base knowledge is not being efficiently acquired, and this impacts heavily on the performance of the students as they advance through their education. That would certainly seem to be in accordance with my experience again. Through contracting a rather nasty illness just at the start of my High School years, I missed the vital foundations as my contemporaries started to learn Algebra. I never managed to catch up, and, as anyone who has done Mathematics knows, Algebra is more or less the absolute 'key' to Trigonometry and almost all the rest of Mathematics. Ironically, Geometry I mastered - because I was able to learn a great deal of the underlying principles by 'rote', but Trigonometry remained a mystery as did Algebra. That has had a major influence on my career path, closing the door to my original ambition of 'going to sea', and even in my ultimate career as a firefighter/fire officer, I eventually had to (in my 30s) get lessons in the basic mathematics that had stumped me at school in order to pass the promotion exams, make sense of hydraulic formulae and eventually develop my knowledge in the 'engineering' required for fire safety enforcement.  

The Spectator article has the statement, from the thinking prevalent in Teacher Training - 
Schools and traditional subject boundaries are silos which stifle the natural creativity we all have within us. And this last fact especially: there is no point teaching a body of knowledge, because within a few years it will be outdated and useless. Don’t teach the what, teach the how. ‘Drill and kill’ and ‘chalk and talk’ will lead to passive and unhappy pupils.
This is where it does get rather interesting, since, as I've said above, I have found that the knowledge I did acquire in the 'old' methods of 'Drill and Kill' and 'Chalk and Talk' was what stuck most effectively, and has been absolutley vital in my later learning. Even as an adult, I needed and still need, the stimulus of listening to someone knowledgable to fire up what passes for my intellect and to give me the basic foundation on which I can build some new understanding or knowledge. Perhaps the 'educationists' do need to reconsider their position. The more we learn about how our brains work, and about how we learn, the more it appears the Educational Establishment needs to adjust their ideas. 

Something both Josephus and I have noted increasingly over our years in training and Adult education is that 'skills' and 'base knowledge' we took for granted in our generation, were simply not present in our students. Where we could stand in front of a class and do mental arithmetic on a white board, our students were frantically trying to find calculators and it came down to what we were carrying around in our heads from our days at school. As Josephus said at the tail of his letter - 
Funny how we of a "certain age" can still carry out mental arithmetic in our dotage when rote learning is so terribly ineffective...
As is said in another field - the science would seem to be 'settled' on this. The evidence is there, but I suspect there are a lot of careers now so vested in denouncing 'rote' learning and teaching, it will take an earth shattering event to get a change. And that could be on the horizon, since the 'League Tables' so beloved of Whitehall show that 'immigrant' students are outperforming their UK contemporaries. Whitehall refuses to break these down in a way that would permit anyone to identify the immigrant children's background or origins, but teachers themselves often remark on the fact that certain ethnic groups seem to have a better grasp of things that can be taught by 'rote' very efficiently, than the other children. One or two have made the connection - most of those immigrant children come from countries where 'teaching by rote' is still done, and, having learned the technique - that is how these kids study at home.

The final word from The Spectator
More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Cleansing of the Christians ...

Today the blog Archbishop Cranmer carries an article "Disremembering Syria". What it reveals is simply appalling. If you have the stomach for it, please read it there. There are some appalling graphic images on the post.

Could this happen in the UK or elsewhere in Europe? Perhaps, especially if we continue to kowtow to extremism.