Student Protests

Thousands of students marched through London yesterday to protest cuts to public education spending by the Conservative-led Coalition government and a significant increase in tuition fees.

Here’s one of the organizers, Ben Beech, a 21-year-old architecture student, holding forth on the issue in an interview by RT… It’s quite an amazing rhetorical performance (begins about 2 minutes into the clip).

Meanwhile, students at UC Berkeley voicing similar grievances were brutally set upon by baton wielding police goons in riot gear.

Signs of things to come, perhaps?


Khan Academy

This guy is absolutely tremendous. I got turned on to his videos several months ago quite inadvertently through a series he did about astrophysics, but shortly afterward discovered that there is an enormous body of instructional material on his website and excellent YouTube channel. Sal Khan is the maths/science teacher you wished you’d had in high school or college!

Also, and this is by no means intended to be dismissive, but if you happen to have trouble sleeping at night, just tune into a playlist of lectures about solving quadratic equations, or whatever… Works like a charm. And, if you subscribe to the notion of Hypnopaedia, hey, you may even learn something that way too!

7 Obnoxious Words & Phrases

I’m not a purist by any means in this regard; most certainly when it comes to nitpicking over what constitutes “proper” spelling or correct grammar (despite having a reputation as a “Nazi” when it comes to such things), but the extent to which the language is now commonly being abused is distressing to say the least.

George Orwell brilliantly catalogued the various “swindles and perversions” of the English language with his usual astute precision 65 years ago in an utterly scathing essay on the subject that I believe should be required reading in every high school. Presuming that is, such skills are still extant in a world now largely characterized by cryptic text messages and circumscribed blurbs registering140 characters or less.

Breeding Ignorance

Back in 2000, President George W. Bush famously remarked: “Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?” Well, apparently not — at least from addlepated dingbats like Shanneen Barron, who broke down in tears just thinking about the HORROR of her daughter being forced to listen in school to President Obama talking about the importance of kids setting educational goals, taking personal responsibility for achieving academic excellence, and other such inspirational platitudes.

Perhaps if any of these paranoid nitwits had actually bothered to read the lesson plan (since amended) they’re so upset about instead of just drinking in the phony hysteria and manufactured outrage emanating from Fox News and right-wing talk radio, it might have allayed their concerns. The full text of the voluntary lesson plan suggestions that were distributed to schools by the Department of Education can be viewed here.

WARNING: If you dare venture into the comments section of that docStoc website, you may be appalled…

The Case Against Homework

On a recent edition of the CBS News “Assignment America” feature, correspondent Steve Hartman met up with a precocious 5th grade student from Long Island, New York who argued in an open letter published last month in The Daily News, that homework is “cruel, inhumane, stressful, unhealthy,” and ultimately, illegal (being a form of “slavery” it’s contended). Berrafato urged his fellow students to rise up and “unite against homework.”

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with the premise, but maybe he’s onto something

Waking Up in the Universe

“The odds against our century’s happening to be the present century are the same as the odds against a penny tossed out at random on the road from London to Istanbul happening to fall on a particular ant.”

This is the first part of Richard Dawkins’ 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture entitled “Growing Up in the Universe” that was intended to provide young people with an introduction to evolution, and more generally, the wonders of science. In the lecture, Dawkins aims to shake off the “anesthetic of the familiar” and, in various ways, demonstrates the usefulness of science in aiding our understanding of the universe. Rather than re-invent the wheel, Wikipedia provides an excellent summary of the series here.

Also “The DVD Outsider” has an extensive review of the series (I’ll spare beleaguered theists the stridently anti-religious rant that precedes it, even though it’s highly entertaining):

The human brain is the most sophisticated object in the known universe and hey, you’ve got one! Yes, you had to go through the complex reproductive process to obtain one but the fact is that if you are reading this, you are the proud possessor of a human brain. What are the odds? Actually the odds of you being here reading this are staggeringly small. If you could grasp just how small, you’d wake up each morning thrilled to be alive and the prospect of more discoveries about the wonder that is your life before being shut down for good, with luck, at extreme old age. If you’ve passed on your genes then you’ve done your job (as far as evolution is concerned).

I am not naïve to think that life is wonderful for all (there are many things that conspire to make it hard. I could have done without pain for a start) but as a child you ask questions. If you have teachers and guardians that are well informed then the world isn’t so much an oyster as a sumptuous banquet just waiting for you to taste its many pleasures.

The tossing pennies rubbishing of psychic events and the cannonball aimed squarely at Dawkins’ own head (faith in scientific principles) are small but exquisite pleasures in this particular lecture and I’m happy to report that my ten year old put his hand up more than once after the audience was asked a question. That’s getting your audience involved.

It would certainly be wonderful to see science taught this way in the classroom rather than as is more frequently the case, in dull fashions that result in it being a stultifying exercise in boredom. In this regard, let me direct your attention to the tragic story of Andy, a gifted 12-year old who entered his junior high school science fair with the challenge to “invent something new and useful.” Andy thought about the problem for a while and, after the expected failed attempts and blind alleys, came up with the idea of a self-buttering toaster. Kind of a Rube Goldberg contraption, to be sure, but quite a clever invention for a 12-year old.

The evening of the fair approached, and Andy and I looked forward with anticipation and excitement to a night of glory. The judges, a collection of teachers and parent volunteers, methodically walked up and down each aisle. They asked questions, measured things with rulers, made notes on clipboards, and generally maintained a judgelike demeanor. When the judges came to Andy’s table, the toaster worked perfectly. With self-assurance and a smile, he handed each judge a slice of warm, buttery Wonder Bread for a snack.

But when the winners were announced, Andy’s name wasn’t called. Crestfallen, he approached the judges and asked, “Why didn’t I get a ribbon?”

“Well, Andy,” said a judge, “we thought your machine was dangerous. After all, it uses electricity and it gets very hot.”

“Of course it does. It’s a toaster,” he protested. “It’s supposed to get hot and use electricity. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a toaster.” Unswayed by logic, the judges would not reconsider.

So who won? First place went to a girl who made a cap and vest for her hamster. Second place went to a boy who “made” radar.

“Hamster clothes? That’s so lame,” Andy whispered to me during the award ceremony. “And that the second place kid didn’t invent radar. He just cut out some pictures of radar antennas and glued them to a poster board.”

More seriously, several years ago, a cross-party group of MPs in the U.K. comprising the Commons science and technology committee found that the rote learning of facts of little use has effectively made science a “tedious and dull activity.” Chairman of the committee Dr. Ian Gibson MP said: “Science should be the most exciting subject on the school curriculum: scientific controversies and breakthroughs hit the headlines every day. But school science can be so boring it puts young people off science for life.” I don’t imagine that the situation is all that much different here in Canada. What an awful shame.