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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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IoP Energy: “Store” of Wisdom or Little Shop of Horrors?

“Something with a lot of energy will kill you.”

This has stayed with me from my PGCE course at Swansea University, many years ago. It was said by Frank Banks, the course tutor, in response to the question “What’s the simplest way to describe energy?”

And as pithy descriptions of energy go, it’s not half-bad. A small stone, dropped from the top of a skyscraper: lots of energy before it hits the ground — it could kill you. A grand piano, dropped from six feet above your head: lots of energy — it could kill you. Licking your fingers and touching the bare live and neutral wires in a socket: the conduction electrons in your body suddenly acquire a lot of energy — and yes, they could kill you. (With alternating current, of course, the electrons that will kill you are already inside your body — freaky!)

This attention-grabbing definition of energy seems to lead naturally to a more formal definition of “Energy is the capacity to do work“. This still leaves the problem of defining work, of course, but as R. A. Lafferty once said, that’s another and much more unpleasant story.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been writing the Energy scheme of work for GCSE Science. As part of that brief, I wrote a short summary for my science colleagues of the IoP’s new approach to energy. I present it below without much amendment (or even a proper spellcheck) in the hope that someone, somewhere, at some time — may find it useful ¬†ūüôā

 

The problem with teaching energy

One reason for the difficulty in deciding what to say about energy at school level is that the scientific idea of energy is very abstract.¬† It is, for example, impossible to say in simple language what energy is, or means.¬† Another problem is that the word ‚Äėenergy‚Äô has entered everyday discourse, with a meaning that is related to, but very different from, the scientific one. [ . . .]

This ‚Äėforms of energy‚Äô approach has, however, been the subject of much debate. One criticism is that pupils just learn a set of labels, which adds little to their understanding. For example, one current textbook uses the example of a battery powered golf buggy. It asks pupils to think of this in the following terms:

Chemical energy in the battery is transformed into electrical energy which is carried by the wires to the motor. The motor then transforms this into kinetic energy as the buggy moves.

This, however, adds nothing to the following explanation, which does not use energy ideas:

The battery supplies an electric current which makes the motor turn. This then makes the buggy move.

A good general rule when explaining anything is that you should use the smallest number of ideas needed to provide an explanation, and not introduce any that are unnecessary

Robin Millar [2012] http://www.lancsngfl.ac.uk/nationalstrategy/ks3/science/files/TeachingAboutEnergy(RobinMillar).pdf

 

Energy ‚Äď a new hope (!)

The new approach to the teaching of energy developed by the Institute of Physics (IoP) suggests that we limit our consideration of energy to situations where we might want to do calculations (at KS4, KS5 or beyond).

We should talk of energy being stored and shifted. The emphasis should be on the start and end of the process with minimal attention being given to any intermediate stages.

Consider the following examples:

  • lifting an object. Chemical potential energy store is emptied, and gravitational potential energy store is filled (note that we are not interested in intermediate motion as it doesn’t affect the final energy store).
  • rolling an object down a slope to the bottom. Gravitational potential energy store is emptied and thermal energy stores (of slope, of pen) increased.
  • Boiling water in kettle. Chemical store (from coal/gas power station) is emptied. Thermal store of water increased, thermal store of air increased, thermal store of kettle increased.

[Examples taken from http://scientistshavesaid.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/teaching-energy.html]

The new approach has been adopted by all UK exam boards for their new specs and is used in the AQA approved textbooks.

The following energy stores are considered: kinetic energy store, gravitational potential energy store, elastic potential energy store, thermal energy store, chemical potential energy store, nuclear energy store, vibrational energy store, electromagnetic energy store (note: the last is limited to situations involving static electric charges and static magnetic poles in magnetic fields).[NB Items in bold are those required for GCSE Combined Science.]

One major difference is that electric current and light are no longer considered as forms of energy. Rather, these are now regarded as means of transferring energy.

 

Rise of the Enojis

enojis

[Image from http://www.supportingphysicsteaching.net/En02PN.html]

I suggest these energy icons should be called enojis (by analogy with emojis).

Probably the biggest adjustment for most teachers will be to avoid referring to light and sound as forms of energy and to treat them as pathways for transferring energy instead.

 

‚ÄúEnergy is the new orange‚ÄĚ and summary

More (much more!) on the IoP‚Äôs ‚Äúenergy as an orange liquid‚ÄĚ model can be found at http://www.supportingphysicsteaching.net/En02TL.html and http://www.supportingphysicsteaching.net/En02PN.html.

enoji2

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Knowledge vs. Skills: Big-endians vs. Little-endians?

My take on the knowledge vs. skills debate…

e=mc2andallthat

Gulliver’s Travels contains the memorable episode where two peoples are engaged in a long war over which end of a boiled egg to break first, the war of the Big-endians vs. the Little-endians:

[T]wo mighty powers have … been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion….the emperor … commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. … It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole…

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Samuel Johnson vs. Michael Gove

Michael Gove suggests that schools who enter GCSE students early in order to “bank” a C grade are, essentially, cheating. Some school leaders have criticised the tone of his announcement. Keven Bartle says they have a point: “The one element of twitter and blogging reportage critical of the announcement by our less-than-beloved Secretary of State for Education with which I wholeheartedly agree is the dismay that met the tone of the piece, particularly with the repeated use of the word ‚Äėcheating‚Äô.”

I think I agree. As Samuel Johnson said (and I am not quoting him as an authority here, rather I simply adore his turn of phrase):

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. . . . I maintain, that an individual of any society, who practises what is allowed, is not a dishonest man.

And it must be conceded that any school that entered students early — either in the hope of banking the magic C grade, or starting a borderline C/D student on the treadmill of resit after resit in pursuit of the same goal — was not, in the technical sense, dishonest in terms of breaking rules: they were simply practicing “what is allowed”.

And what about their motives? That’s a more difficult question. Some schools, no doubt, did the deed out of a genuine desire for the best results for their students. Others, perhaps, could be likened to the “lions-led-by-donkeys” generals of World War One, heedlessly throwing underprepared cannon-fodder into the bloody fray in order to “move their drinks cabinet five yards closer to Berlin” (as Blackadder might put it), or improve their league table score by two tenths of a percentage point.

And therein lies the rub. Although early entry (or repeated entry ad nauseam) might be in the interest of a small minority of students, an over-reliance on them smacks of gaming the system

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. Trade … produces intermediate good

And there (although he was speaking of gambling rather than GCSEs) I think Sam Johnson nails it once more. The frantic pursuit of exam grades for their own sake is an empty pursuit, and all too often the chancers, gamers and gamblers of the whole byzantine examination system have done their students a disservice, and been (in my opinion) unfairly lauded and feted. The “intermediate good” that their students were deprived of is hard to identify precisely but could include: the luxury of time to prepare (and be taught properly) for their exams, understanding that the exam is part of the process and not the point of the process, and that panicked random cramming (either on their own or as part of teacher-led “intervention” cram-fests) is not the way to understand complex and subtle ideas.

Gove’s latest animadversion apparently signals an end to “unsocial” and “unprofitable” gaming of the exam system.

I hope. As with many of Gove’s more sensible announcements (and there have been one or two), it’s not the animating spirit of the idea, but the inflexible, procrustean, peremptory finality of the rule change that could make it a change for the worse, rather than for the better.

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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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Du Code Goveon

“Professor Moriarty: the Napoleon of Crime!” – Sherlock Holmes.

In the whole of France, apparently, there is not a single cultivated hedgerow which is over six foot in height. Any hedge which serves as the boundary between properties can attain a maximum height of two metres, and no more.

And the reason for this is Napoleon. Or, more precisely, it is the Code Napoleon, the body of laws put in place by Napoleon. You see he was more than Austerlitz, Josephine, and Waterloo (somehow the thought that he also made the stagecoaches run on time surfaces from somewhere, but we’ll skip that for now).

The fact is that Napoleon couldn’t imagine a reason for any person in the entirety of the French Empire to want or need a hedgerow that was more than six foot tall. So he passed a law about it. That’s the amazing thing about the Code Napoleon: it is a body of law which is coherent, complex and flexible enough to run a modern state that essentially emerged from the brain of a single individual.

Perhaps I overstate my case. But it is a fact that Napoleon insisted that every law should be seen and approved by him, that it should pass through the prism of his mind.

And much of it is good. Much of it survives to this day as the foundational law of the modern French state as the Gallic leviathan woke from the near-anarchy of its feudal, monarchic slumbers. (Hums: #Red, the blood of angry men…#)

But there are oddities which stem from the predjudices, habits of thought and visceral likes and dislikes of a single, flawed individual. The hedgerow is one example of that.

And the point of this discussion? Well, it struck me the other day that Michael Gove is attempting to do the same thing. He’s doing a Napoleon. He is midway through what can only be described as an attempt to make himself the Napoleon of Education. He is instituting a Code Goveon whereby he sets up a body of educational law and a framework of assessment where every element of which has passed through (and been approved by) the ideological prism of his mind.

It is a significant ambition. Will he succeed? The truth is, he just might. Gove’s equivalent of the Napoleonic Hedgerow Decree is, I think, the insistence on assessment by terminal exam. At first sight, it is vaguely sensible. But the truth is, there are times when a modular exam structure (like a seven foot hedge) might be a good idea. Maybe not for everybody. And maybe not all the time. There is a grain of truth to the fact that examinations and resit culture were consuming too great a proportion of school resources.

However, a man’s still a man for a’that, and my fear is that the Code Goveon will emerge with the indelible stamp of one person’s vagaries and peccadilloes running through it like cracks in a plate glass window. Undoubtedly, like the curate’s egg, it will be “good in parts”, but there are some tasks that it is quite simply hubristical for a single human being to attempt. Even a literate and well-educated human being who (possibly) means well and who has a panel of carefully chosen experts (perhaps too carefully chosen a panel in Gove’s case) to advise him.

I shall follow events as they unfold with interest, but – alas! – not with much optimism. And I would be willing to bet that at the end of it all the trains still won’t be running on time.

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