Friday, 23 October 2009

Why Don't Students Like School - Daniel T. Willingham

"Why don't students like school?"

It’s a question that most of us have asked at some point in our lives, some as an educators, others as a parents.

Many students ask that question too as they stare aimlessly at the front of the room, looking like a Goldfish at feeding time. What’s really on their minds is the outcome of their online gaming challenge, or which movie star they find the cutest.

"If you ask 100 high school students if they like to learn new things, almost all of them will tell you they like to learn," said Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive psychologist. "But if you ask those same students if they like school, many of them will tell you they don't."

Willingham addresses these issues in a very readable and entertaining way in, "Why Don't Students like School?," where the reader finds out how the mind works, and more importantly, what implications this has for learning.

"The mind is actually designed to avoid thinking," Willingham said. "Thinking is a slow process; it's effortful and even uncertain. People naturally want to avoid that process, and instead rely on memory, the things we already know how to do and are successful at."

Willingham uses cooking as an example.

"If you want to make spaghetti sauce, you could go onto the Internet and search out new recipes. You could go through all your cookbooks. And if you are really into cooking, you might do exactly that. But most people will just make the sauce the way they always make it, because they already know how. And so it's a lot easier that way."

So when you switch on your child’s bedroom light at 6.30am in the morning and get a less than enthusiastic response, you know the reason why: At school they are forced to think and learn, putting them into direct conflict with how our their work. According to Willingham, we are not programmed to learn new things easily, thus it is difficult. Kids and adults naturally take the easy option and avoid the painful cognitive tasks.
But this is true only up to a point, as people are also curious beings.

"People actually enjoy thinking - when it is at a level that is not too simple, and not excessively difficult," Willingham said. "People like to be challenged. That's why we play games, it's why we read books, why we do many of the things we do. So there's a sweet spot, a level where learning is neither too simplistic to be interesting, nor too difficult to be enjoyable. This is the spot that teachers are always trying to find for their students in the classroom."

This is where creative teacher, using a combination of storytelling that evokes emotion and thought, and exercises that put lessons into context, that build upon students foundational knowledge, and help them progress.. It's also sustained hard work, Willingham said, that creates thinking skills dependent upon factual knowledge.

"We want to create learning experiences that last," he said.

Willingham spent about 15 years of his career as a research cognitive scientist, conducting studies under laboratory conditions. Then he started talking to teachers' groups and discovered that what he and other researchers had discovered in the lab was of great interest to teachers in the field.

One question teachers keep asking is how to work with students' different "learning styles." They don't really exist, Willingham said.

"There are different abilities, but really, we all learn the same way," he said. "It's not left brain versus right brain, or visual or auditory or kinesthetic. We learn using a combination of skills, and we are all more similar in our learning styles than different."

And students naturally learn better in the areas or disciplines where their abilities lie. So the challenge for teachers and parents alike is to recognize childrens strengths and exploit them. Obviously this presents a problem: Thirty teenagers in a classroom, some flirting, others fighting, and all with a burning desire to get out of the confined space as quickly as possible. It is a massive challenge, but one that has to be undertaken if the accumulated wisdom of generations is to be passed down to the next effectively. Reading this book is a great read for all those with an interest in the area of educational psychology, and also for an insight into the mind and cognition. Willingham has made complex subject matter highly readable and sparklingly entertaining.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Monday, 19 October 2009

Flashes from a life that is.

Jeff’s house was of the modest kind, nestled at the foot of a large hill amongst mature palm fruit trees. Every morning he walked through the dense vegetation, until he came to a small winding path that led to a magnificent natural lake, surrounded by pristine jungle. Here he strolled and thought about how beautifully simplistic life was. He walked over armies of ants that striped the path like pieces of black wedding ribbon, and was amazed by the sight of wild pigs and giant preying mantis. At the waters edge he felt free. He looked at his reflection in the water and saw a man that had found meaning in life. He was experiencing each sensation and savoring it. Every shade of green and flash of sunlight through the jungles thick canopy fascinated him. He was on auto pilot navigating his way through life’s beautiful meanders, absorbing it all with long slow strides; enjoying the spaciousness and sweet music of the jungle.

Jeff sat silently on his veranda at an ornate teak Sino-Portuguese table.. He watched as the sky turned a wonderful light blue. Grey and white wisps of cloud inched their way towards an unknown destination; a journey without a beginning or an end. Simultaneously, people, animals and plants breathed a sigh of relief, as the days suffocating heat began to subside. It was like a prayer had been answered. The early evening shadows began to lengthen on the rust coloured slopes of the mountain, making intricate black patterns on the dark red clay, like a traditional Chinese paper cutting. The Palm trees swayed flirtatiously in the soothing late afternoon breeze, and the crystal clear stream in front of the house trickled effortlessly. As the daylight continued to fade, a breathless dusk grew ever closer.

After a short drive the first of the encroaching out-of-town retail park became visible. The bright lights and clean cut interiors, made Jeff feel uneasy. There were too many people there: The Nuevo rich posed, students hunted in packs, and everyone else looked dazzled by the wonders of corporate America. Necessity brought Jeff to shop here, and he usually left as quickly as he came in. He knew it was melodramatic, but somehow he felt partly responsible for the whole vile circus show. His white skin made him guilty by association - a tacit consenter – a pawn in the corporate conspiracy.

The intercom sounded clear and direct: “Home-Pro’s Homecard – A card for lovers.” Shelves were stacked thirty feet up with all manner of DIY conveniences, and home improvement products, all promising the consumer a piece of happiness. Jeff walked down the power tool isle, his hands in his pockets; he wondered how the mountains of stock would ever be sold. As he pondered the thought he overheard two suited men talking in the Bathroom section. One of them had a beard and was sweating profusely. He seemed on edge to Jeff. He began to speak feverishly to the other man.

“To cash in on this particular bonanza, one has to live and breath the image of the ideal home – Picture this: A mother stands in her modern kitchen, fully equipped with time saving time devises, mahogany paneling and marble worktops; her bright eyed twins skip into the room, singing a sweet lullaby, brimming with youthful innocence; the father of the household sits on a wicker chair in the corner reading a newspaper, he nods in simple recognition, fully aware that his parenting skills are an example to all,”
His colleague stared at the floor. He exhaled deeply and said with a beaming smile. “This is without a doubt the Home-Pro family. It’s simple, offer people a dream. Let them get lost in the mediated environment, breath in the offers of the day, the mood lighting and the canned relaxation music – emancipate themselves from the painful reality of their own family – another future is possible - for a price.”

The two men retained straight faces thought out the conversation. Jeff’s stomach churned.

“Perhaps I can buy my way out of all this,” thought Jeff sardonically. He was only there to buy a light bulb, but already the situation was getting to him. He came to the island four years ago, fell in love and never left. Now the girl was gone and he was alone with his thoughts. When he was young he always imagined himself repeating the life of those around him – fulfilling cultural expectations like paying tax and going to church, but life for Jeff was very different. His time was his own and he used is wisely: he read and painted vivaciously, hungry for knowledge, on a never ending pursuit to entangle the mysteries of life. A gallery in the city had been exhibiting his work for seven months – he had a handful of sales. His agent talked incessantly of New York connections and the big time; Jeff simply smiled at this talk. Even if it was true, he knew that the limelight was not for him.

On the floor, workers in bright orange aprons competed for his attention. Commission was to be had, and Jeff was visible on the store radar. The blasts of air-conditioning, mixed uneasily with the humidity, giving him hot flushes like woman ten weeks gone. It seemed as if the staff were being controlled automatically: perhaps concealed above the ceiling was a nerve centre where every staff movement was planned in advance, then robotically follow for the duration of the shift. Jeff noticed the banal elevator music, its velvety smooth time signatures, numbing him into a false sense of relaxation. The intercom rang out once more. “Home-Pro discount card. The one way ticket to happiness for everything in your home.” For a moment, Jeff felt half convinced, as the employees swayed rhythmically, waiting to pounce, with their orange aprons glowing like cigarettes in the darkness. Jeff turned round, dazed by the entire experience, to find a worker smiling and ushering him to the lighting isle. “You like hear special price sir?” Jeff smiled and excused himself, safe in the knowledge that his delicious consumer bones were not for the picking. He inhaled the air deeply like a smoker having his first draw of the day, turned around, and walked out of the store.


Tuesday, 13 October 2009

"Hells Angel: Mother Teresa" by Christopher Hitchens

Originally broadcast in 1994 on Channel 4; Aired again on October 23, 2007

Mother Teresa has become synonymous with saintliness, but is her reputation deserved? Christopher Hitchens investigates the Mother Teresa myth, looking at her work in Calcutta, her global campaign against abortion, her alliance with the most conservative Pope in recent memory and her apparent penchant for right-wing regimes and dictatorships.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A Coconut Tree Moment

Mid afternoon coffee and cake on the veranda. A man shuffles up a forty foot palm tree directly in front of me in search of coconuts - no harness - no fear. All he has to do is avoid a slip and he will be just fine. The man's flippancy and carefree attitude towards such a death defying act, got me thinking.

In my place of birth, Northern Ireland, people used to be free to take chances. I look back on my childhood with somewhat rose tinted glasses, remembering a time when there was such as thing as an accident - people allowed themselves the luxury of bending rules, to obtain what they wanted.

On a recent trip home, I spent a full year living and working within a system that I barely recognized. The workplace, and society at large, was a place where people where tripping over themselves, not to literally trip up. Accidents, it seems, have become a thing of the past. Now, as a result of a greedy a manipulative legal system, borrowed from the US, there is no such thing as an accident.

"Where there's blame, there's a claim."

I tried to explain this eventuality to a Thai friend and he was very confused indeed.

"But, what do you mean if you fall in work, it's not your fault?" was his perplexed response.

I might as well have been speaking Swahili.

A man in work, climbing up a tree with his own consent in Northern Ireland, would sadly now cause a large degree of nappy wetting. In fact, I could imagine it becoming front page news in a local newspaper, the headline reading:

"Man sacked, and jailed for deliberate and shameful health and safety violation."

One could picture the scene with police, ambulances, fire engines and rapid
response, yellow jacket wearing, private security experts on the street all looking skyward with a look of disgust of their faces.

"Where are his hat, goggles, and safety net"

"Does he have a climbing license from the local council?"

"Just who does he think he is?!"

At what point in the future will a beacon of rationality reveal itself and say:

"Enough of this bullshit. what have we become?"

Depressingly, Probably never.

The precedent has been set. The ball is rolling, and people are making real money out of common sense, at the expense of individual freedom of choice. Personal freedom is not what it was. Stressed workers from builders to engineers, are all tip-toeing round their work places, spouting the latest vomit inducing soundbite from the dinner time news.

"That's a health and safety", I was aggressively told my a superior in my last job in Ireland. "I wasn't aware that health and safety is a noun" was my forward and frustrated reply.

In all honestly, the year I spend back home I felt violated by nonsensical parroting like the aforementioned. Here in Thailand, there may be corruption, chronic dis-organization and borderline anarchy, but at least you feel human - animated. I saw people on the verge of hemorrhaging because a yellow mop bucket, was being used on a red mop bucket's floor space - I kid you not.

For those of you who live in Britain, this will not come as a shock, in fact you are probably thinking

" Yeah, of course you shouldn't be using the incorrect mop, that's simply ridiculous!"

Pithel of this type, has anesthetized an entire generation, squeezing their ability to think straight. Once trivial issues, are now punishable by one the spot fines, or even a lengthy stretch in jail. Personally, I question a governments ultimate intentions when shouting in a car, or arguing with a privately employed traffic warden are criminal offenses.

What's next in this crazy state of affairs; enforced euthanasia to solve the problem of an aging population? Is an aging population a helath and safety issue? Who knows where it will all end?

The point is that anything can become law if twisted in the right way, and repeated often enough. Rapidly, liberty is being eroded, and people are too busy working to pay tax to notice. Like a faulty tap dripping, freedom is being stolen drop by drop; insidiously sucking the joy of life from people, replacing what were everyday actions, into incriminating offenses.

Next time your in the car and your afraid to turn over the radio because there's a policeman nearby, think of the Thai man in the coconut tree, and wonder where it all went wrong.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Food, Inc. (2008)

Food, Inc. (2008)

The current method of raw food production is largely a response to the growth of the fast food industry since the 1950s. The production of food overall has more drastically changed since that time than the several thousand years prior. Controlled primarily by a handful of multinational corporations, the global food production business - with an emphasis on the business - has as its unwritten goals production of large quantities of food at low direct inputs (most often subsidized) resulting in enormous profits, which in turn results in greater control of the global supply of food sources within these few companies. Health and safety (of the food itself, of the animals produced themselves, of the workers on the assembly lines, and of the consumers actually eating the food) are often overlooked by the companies, and are often overlooked by government in an effort to provide cheap food regardless of these negative consequences. Many of the changes are based on advancements in science and technology, but often have negative side effects. The answer that the companies have come up with is to throw more science at the problems to bandage the issues but not the root causes. The global food supply may be in crisis with lack of biodiversity, but can be changed on the demand side of the equation.



President O Bama Recieves the Nobel Peace Prize

Lets have a little glance at what he has been up to since coming to office.

1. Climate change regulation – India and China gave him a thumbs down and are still building coal fired plants.

2. Guantanamo bay – He asked it to be closed by February 2010, will not be done.

3. Health care reform – the opposition to that bill in the house and senate is mind numbing

4. Reduce nuclear weapons – Iran and North Korea want nuclear weapons. India, China and Israel won’t sign nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

5. Afghanistan – in his campaign he said he will bring the fight against terrorism hard to Al Qaeda, but now he has second thoughts about troop increase.

6. Job losses – Said job losses will not be above 9%, currently in the USA that figure stands at 9.8% with no end in sight.

7. Israel-Palestine conflict – Israel won’t stop building settlements and Hamas criticized that Obama received the noble peace prize.

8. Iran – USA wants sanctions, but co-operation from China and Russia is lukewarm to say the least.

9. Honduras – Wants the ousted president reinstated, no one is listening.

Does the power of rhetoric really count for more than real political achievements?

This remind me of a satirical joke.

The writers of the could not have written this one any better.

Food for thought.


Thursday, 1 October 2009

Morning in Ao Nang.

Ao Nang.

Day one:

Rolled out of bed at 10am with a mild hangover. Nothing terminal. Had a superb breakfast of fresh orange juice, toast, fried rice, and coffee over looking the emerald green ocean. My heart went out to the sophisticated Germans who sat stiff and upright, at the opposite table. I was aware of their awareness. I breathed deeply the sea air. I was hungry. Have they never seen a man eating aggressively before? Does this not happen in the Munich beers halls? Anyway, eating like a man who just located his desert mirage, I soldiered on; appetite dangerously out of control on a beachfront table. Gluttonously, I filled my plate for the third time and strolled triumphantly past their beady stares, feeling like a medieval king covered in banqueting grease. Anyway, spotty teenagers can eat like a pig, and so can street drinkers for that matter, so why can't I? I hold my hands up; guilty as charged officer: I am a food lover, not a fighter - Bite me.

With breakfast hundred per cent swallowed, fifty per cent chewed, and zero per cent digested, it was prime time for a dip in the crystal clear pool.

At this point, the reader may be pondering why one would swim in a pool when twenty metres away is the wondrous Andaman Sea? The answer can be expressed in one simple word - monsoon.

The tidal surges at this time of year are as unstable as an alcoholic on a tightrope. One minute you are playing in a rubber ring, the next screaming at dots on the horizon.

Scores of well fed, sun burnt, white folk, lose their lives every year on these sun kissed shores. Their belligerent defiance of local advice costs them dear; sucked out as easily as a message in a bottle. The crystal clear waters hold dark secrets at this time of year; secret fables, not worth pursuing, and secret games, not worth playing. Beware