Monthly Archives: July 2013

Not The-Perfect-Sphere-Assumption-Chicken-Joke

Farmer Jenkins was justly proud of his free-range chicken farm, and particularily of Griselda, his prize layer. So, it came as no surprise (at least to him) when he placed highly in the All-England Free Range Egg Taste Challenge. “Don’t you worry, lass,” he cooed to Griselda as his Range Rover purred through the warm summer night, “next year we’ll come first, I promise.”

Griselda continued sleeping in her carry case, seemingly comforted by the presence of the garish gold-painted plastic statue by her side, which featured a chicken contorted to form an approximation of the numeral 2.

On a whim, Farmer Jenkins locked the award in his office safe when he got home, and returned Griselda to her roost with reverential gratitude.

The next day he unlocked the safe to retreive the award. He had a fair bit of trouble opening the door. “That’s strange,” he murmured, bending down to examine the obstruction. It appeared that the award had somehow moved in the night and jammed part of the door mechanism. “H’mmm, how did that happen?” Farmer Jenkins shook his head. The award appeared . . . bigger, somehow. But surely that was impossible. However, what troubled Farmer Jenkins most of all was the fact that the plastic chicken, what he could see of it, at least, now appeared contorted into the shape of the numeral 3.

As he telephoned his friend Brian to share his puzzlement, he heard a metallic tearing. He stared dumbfounded at an apparition of a plastic chicken rearing above the torn remnants of his safe. And now the wings and body of the plastic fowl appeared to form the numeral 4.

“Did anyone touch it?” asked Brian urgently over the crackly landline connection

“No, no-one,” said Jenkins with certainty.

“Ah, that explains it,” said Brian.

“It does?”

“Oh yes,” concluded Brian. “You see, in an isolated system, hen trophy will always increase.”

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Blogs for the Week Ending 12th July 2013

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The Woman Who Is Kicking the Hornets’ Nest

So, I’m reading  Seven Myths about Education.  Just like most of the rest of the teaching blogosphere, I suspect. And just like most of the rest of the teaching blogosphere, I have an opinion about it. Several, as a matter of fact. And since I am now about halfway through, I thought I’d share my thrupence’ worth.

To begin with, is Ms Christodoulou more like the boy who cried that the king had no clothes or the boy who cried wolf?

For my money, she is more the former than the latter. I think the estimable Ms Christodolou is calling time on some pretty dodgy ideas.

Some ideas are as ubiquitous and seemingly essential as air, but as Joseph Joubert correctly opined: “A thought is a thing as real as a cannonball”.  And in some circumstances, the wrong idea can be more dangerous than a large round metal ball travelling at close to the speed of sound.

Now teaching-wise, I have to confess that I have been around the block a few times. I am the definitive “old fart in the staffroom”. Like many old farts, I could bring myself to believe that oftentimes it is not what Ofsted actually said that was the main problem, but what all-too-many people thought that Ofsted said: some half-remembered, half-digested soundbite from some godforsaken half-decade-old CPD.

Christodoulou marshals some convincing evidence that often it is the actual demands of Ofsted that create the problem. It seems that Ofsted genuinely do not like didactic teaching, and we’re not just imagining it. Christodoulou presents some damning examples of the current vogue of trashing “teacher talk” from inspection reports. Whether Wilshaw will be able to rein in the “talk-less-teaching” rottweilers on his staff is open to debate. Large organisations can have a momentum as stubborn as supertanker and carry on going in the same direction for mile after mile, whatever the frantic signals from the wheelhouse say.

One of the passages that resonated most strongly with me was this:

For example, in a project that involved pupils writing any type of extended writing … I would provide them with a helpsheet summarising what they should put in each paragraph. […] Rather than breaking down the individual components required to write good reports and teaching those, I was asking students to write a report and then giving them a few cheats or hints about how to do it. It is rather like teaching pupils a few cheats or hints that would help them play a certain song on the piano, while neglecting to teach them the scales and musical notation.
— Location 1727, Kindle edition

Been there, done that, smugly uploaded the worksheet on to the TES Resources website…

She quotes psychologist Dan Willingham: “the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers [is to] review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.”

Christodoulou argues that teaching (say) Romeo and Juliet by getting the students to make fingerpuppets of the main characters is counterproductive because the students spend more time thinking about making fingerpuppets rather than Romeo and Juliet. “That is not to say that … puppetmaking [is] unimportant. The problem is that this lesson . . . was supposed to be about Romeo and Juliet. If the aim of the lesson was … how to make a puppet, it would have been a good lesson. Not only do these types of lesson fail in their ultimate aims, but because they are so time-consuming, they also have a very significant opportunity cost.”

I agree with Christodoulou that direct instruction is often the most effective form of teaching. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not proposing that teachers spend the whole of the lesson talking at their charges. What I am saying is that students’ thinking should be channelled to engage as directly with the concepts being taught as possible. And at the heart of good teaching is clear, succinct, unhurried teacher talk.

The fingerpuppet stuff I have done, but only to pass observations. Sadly, honesty is not the best policy these days.

A while back, Arnold Schwarzenegger was The Terminator: robot on the inside, human on the outside.

Call me the The Didactor: steely-eyed, garrulous, “I’ve-got-a-banda-and-I’m-not-afraid-to-use-it” old-school (hah!) schoolteacher on the inside; cuddly, Ofsted-friendly, near-mute “lesson-facillitator” on the outside (readers of a certain generation are invited to think of a cross between Fingerbobs and Marcel Marceau).

Sigh, I wish. I got a 3 (“Requires improvement”) in my last lesson observation.

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

— Jean Giraudoux

More sincere faking is required on my part, I feel.

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Desert Island Graphs

In Britain, being invited on the BBC radio programme “Desert Island Discs” is an accolade roughly equivalent to being knighted. Guests are invited to choose six records that they might take with them to a desert island.

The recent episode with Stephen Pinker reminded me of a variant that I’d pitched to the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment not so long ago. In “Desert Island Graphs” a panel of notable scientists sit around and hold a no-holds-barred humorous roundrobin discussion of which six graphs they’d carry with them to a desert island.
image

My own perennial favourite is of course the old Binding Energy per Nucleon against Nucleon Number because it is a wonderful illustration of how basic physics affects the unfolding of the universe: large red giant stars cook up each of the elements in turn up to iron before “sploding” (thank you Ricky Ricardo) as a supernova (“Wha’ ‘appen?!?”).

To say that my overtures were brutally rejected would be an understatement. As a matter of fact, the then Head of Light Entertainment threatened not only to have me hunted down and killed, but to have my hometown napalmed and the ground sown with salt.

There’s just no pleasing some people….

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