Monthly Archives: February 2017

A Classicist Writes

My lovely wife Laurie has started her own blog called A Classicist Writes.

She writes on Ancient Greece and Rome (she has an M.A. in Classical Studies), cats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, more cats, more Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other topics.

Hope you enjoy!

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Look at the pretty pictures…

Uniformity of practice seldom continues long without good reason.

So opined the estimable Dr Johnson in 1775. In other words, if a thing is done in a certain way, and continues to be done in that same way for a number of years by many different people, then it is a pretty safe bet that there is a good reason for doing the thing that way. And this is true even when that reason is not immediately apparent.

For the choice of this situation there must have been some general reason, which the change of manners has left in obscurity.

— Samuel Johnson, A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

Consider the following examples of “uniformity of practice”:

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They are fairly bog-standard GCSE examination questions from the last two years from three different exam boards. But compare and contrast with an O-level Physics paper from 1966:

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The “uniformity of practice” that leaps out at me is that the more modern papers, as a rule, have many more illustrations than the older paper. Partly, of course, this is to do with technology. It would have been (presumably) vastly more expensive to include illustrations in the 1966 paper.

Even if we assume that the difficulty level of the questions in the modern and older papers are equivalent (and therein lies a really complex argument which I’m not going to get into), there is a vast difference in the norms of presentation. For example, the modern papers seems to eschew large blocks of dense, descriptive text; this extends to presenting the contextual information in the ultrasound question as a labelled diagram.

Now I’m not saying that this is automatically a good or a bad thing, but there does seem to be a notable “uniformity of practice” in the modern papers.

Now what could the “general reason” for this choice?

Rather than leave the “change of manners” responsible for the choice “in obscurity”, I will hazard a guess: the examiners know or suspect that many of their candidates will struggle with reading technical prose at GCSE level, and wish to provide visual cues in order for students to play “guess the context” games.

Now I’m not assigning blame or opprobrium on to the examiners here. If I was asked to design an exam paper for a wide range of abilities I might very well come up with a similar format myself.

But does it matter? Are we testing Physics or reading comprehension here?

My point would be that there can be an elegance and beauty in even the most arid scientific prose. At its best, scientific prose communicates complex ideas simply, accurately and concisely. It may seem sparse and dry at first glance, but that is only because it is designed to be efficient — irrelevancies have been ruthlessly excised. Specialised technical terms are used liberally, of course, but this is only because they serve to simplify rather than complicate the means of expression. 

Sometimes, “everyday language” serves to make communication less direct by reason of vagueness, ambivalence or circumlocution. You might care to read (say) one of Ernest Rutherford’s papers to see what I mean by good scientific prose.

The O-level paper provides, I think, a “beginner’s guide” to the world of scientific, technical prose. Whereas a modern question on falling objects might tack on the sentence “You may ignore the effects of air resistance” as an afterthought or caveat, the O-level paper uses the more concise phrase “a body falling freely” which includes that very concept.

To sum up, my concern is that in seeking to make things easier, we have actually ended up making things harder, and robbing students of an opportunity to experience clear, concise scientific communication.

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The Gamesters of Sparta

Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered.

— Samuel Johnson

At a recent event, the speaker asked us to consider a hypothetical conundrum: what if one GCSE Triple Science student was strong in (say) Chemistry and Biology, but significantly weaker in GCSE Physics? 

What course of action would you recommend? Extra support in Physics, was the consensus reply. 

Actually, said the speaker, the smart “Progress 8 Maximisation Strategy” would be to:

  1. Tell the student to focus her efforts entirely on Biology and Chemistry and completely ignore Physics. . .
  2. . . . but keep her entered for GCSE Physics anyway, and make sure that she goes into the exam hall and writes her name on the Physics papers, even if she does nothing else.

That way, she has ostensibly followed a full and balanced curriculum. She has, after all, been entered for all three Science subjects.  And, since Progress 8 counts only the two highest Science grades (or so I’m told), the student’s contribution to the school’s league table position would be also be secure.

H’mm. Dishonest? No. In the school’s best interests? Definitely. In the student’s best interests? Erm . . . on balance, no.

Sadly, as the character Joseph Sisko (ably played by Brock Peters) once observed on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “There isn’t a test that’s been created that a smart man can’t find his way around!” And that includes Progress 8 . . .

Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good. 

— Samuel Johnson

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Learning Is For The Birds

​Well versed in the expanses
that stretch from earth to stars,
we get lost in the space
from earth up to our skull.

Wislawa Szymborska, To My Friends

What do we mean by learning? To tell the truth, even as a teacher of twenty-five years experience, I am not sure. 

Professor Robert Coe has suggested that learning happens when people have to think hard. In a similar vein, Daniel Willingham contends that knowledge is the residue of thought. Siegfried Engelmann proposes that learning is the capacity to generalise to new examples from previous examples. I have also heard learning defined as a change in the long term memory.

One thing is certain, learning involves some sort of change in the learner’s brain. But what is acknowledged less often is that it doesn’t just happen in human brains.

Contrary to standard social science assumptions, learning is not some pinnacle of evolution attained only recently by humans. All but the simplest animals learn . . . [And some animals execute] complicated sequences of arithmetic, logic, and data storage and retrieval.
— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works (1997), p.184

An example recounted by Pinker is that of some species of migratory birds that fly thousands of miles at night and use the constellations to find North. Humans do this too when we find the Pole Star.

But with birds it’s surely just instinct, right?

Wrong. This knowledge cannot be genetically “hardwired” into birds as it would soon become obsolete. Currently, a star known as Polaris just happens to be (nearly) directly above the Earth’s North Pole, so that as the Earth rotates on its axis, this star appears to stand still in the sky while the other stars travel on slow circular paths. But it was not always thus.

The Earth’s axis wobbles slowly over a period of twenty six thousand years. This effect is called the precession of the equinoxes. The North Star will change over time, and oftentimes there won’t be star bright enough to see with the naked eye at the North Celestial Pole for there to be “North Star” — just as currently there is no “South Star”.But there will be one in the future, at least temporarily, as the South Celestial Pole describes its slow precessional dance.

Over evolutionary time, a genetically hardwired instinct that pointed birds towards any current North Star or South Star would soon lead them astray in a mere few thousand years or so.

So what do the birds do?

[T]he birds have responded by evolving a special algorithm for learning where the celestial pole is in the night sky. It all happens while they are still in the nest and cannot fly. The nestlings gaze up at the night sky for hours, watching the slow rotation of the constellations. They find the point around which the stars appear to move, and record its position with respect to several nearby constellations. [p.186]

And so there we have it: the ability to learn confers an evolutionary advantage, amongst many others.

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