Sunday, 1 October 2017

100-word fiction: Time to leave

Hi, Mum. Sorry we haven’t been to visit. How have you been?

Did you see the news this morning? Yes, it looks really bad this time.

I’m going to take the children away from here. There’s a group leaving any minute. I have to go straight away – they are waiting for me outside.

I thought of staying longer, but it’s not a good idea to wait. I can’t promise that we will be safe where we’re going, but I’m certain we aren’t safe here.

They are calling for me now. I have to go.

I love you, Mummy.

100-word fiction: Look who's back!

He's just there, sitting gormlessly at the bare table. He looks at me, eyes empty, gulps and says nothing.

"Look who’s back!" she breezes, fussing around to make him comfortable. A teacup and saucer clatter down. I jump. He doesn't.

He hasn't aged. Ten years and he looks precisely the same.

My fists clench. Offended that he should reappear like this; sickened that he left in the first place.

He is not real. He is an imposter. He is a ghost. I am angry and I am scared.

Her face warns that my urgent questions must wait.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Why I support the expansion of grammar schools

I try to ensure that my blog is generally light-hearted, entertaining and apolitical. I strive to avoid causing offence. So it's disconcerting to find myself on the deeply unpopular "wrong" side of the socially-progressive consensus, arguing against organisations such as Reform and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It feels very much like the first time as an adult that somebody told me, to my face, that they didn't like me.

Yet here I am, arguing for the expansion of grammar schools. A policy of a government that I didn't vote for, strongly advocated by a Prime Minister that I don't much care for.

And yes, I have been goaded into setting out my views because of this kind of popular argument:

I would say to @twlldun (in rather more than 140 characters):

  1. Absolutely, I acknowledge that my own singular experience is only an anecdote. I still have the right to talk about it.
  2. Your comment is an unacceptable generalisation - just as flawed as the poor grasp of statistics that you ridicule.
  3. You can't extrapolate statistics about a hypothetical future education system from the system that existed in the 1950s.
  4. Who says that you're asking the right questions of the right people? You could pose a question to a population of grammar school alumni - say, "Was your experience of grammar school a good one?" - and still get meaningful statistical answers. (I don't know whether anybody has ever asked such a question, but it seems likely that that is the implicit question being answered in many such anecdotes.)
  5. Even within a grammar school education, not everybody is going to end up being great at statistics.

Here's my anecdote, then. I wouldn't be in the position I am today were it not for a grammar education. I wouldn't have been the first in my family to go to university, closely followed by my little sister. My wife and her brother would say the same. As would many of our friends. My parents did not go to university; but they both entered professions as a result of being the most academically gifted in their families and, consequently, attending grammar schools.

Did this contribute to a split along social lines? As it happens, us going to grammar school did not somehow magically destroy our friendships with those that didn't. We stayed in touch with those people we cared about - those with whom we had common interests. Of those that I regret not staying in touch with, a fair number went to other grammars, especially one of the two local girls' grammars.

That's not to say I think my grammar education was perfect. I think a single-sex education, while possibly conducive to academic concentration, had a strongly detrimental social effect on me and many of my peers. More fundamentally, some of my classmates have subsequently made a compelling case that they became complacent in education: that the school failed to enable them to reach their full potential; that it did not add as much value as it could have. There is some evidence for this: at the time of my attendance, my school was found to be the "best value for money" state school in the country. This means that it spent less for every high GCSE or A-Level grade than any other. You could take this to mean that the school's high achievement was despite, not because of, high educational standards.

Still, I think I would have rapidly foundered in a comp. Bookish, nerdy, resolutely uninterested in sport, and introverted: I think I would have been bullied, that I would have been easily bored in lessons, and that I would eventually have retreated into myself. I'm not sure about any of these hypotheticals, but I believe them. Around the ages of 11 or 12, I was twice attacked by older kids from local comps because of the uniform I wore. I quickly came to see that my school was, relatively speaking, a haven of bright pupils whose most significant common factor was that they all had a healthy respect for school and for learning. I agree that they weren't an especially diverse bunch, but then, I'm not sure that their backgrounds differed significantly from those friends I had at primary school.

I am aware of the main arguments against selective education. It doesn't increase social mobility as much as it should. Only a tiny elite get to attend. It leaves behind bright pupils whose potential has been overlooked. Overall attainment decreases. It places too much emphasis on the outcome of a single test, when we all develop at a different rate. Richer students are more likely to succeed because they can afford private tuition. I believe that all of these problems can be overcome with a well-designed grammar system. Indeed, the Government appears to be doing exactly that in its consultations.

Social mobility can be addressed either through quotas (though these are fraught with difficulties); or, as the Government proposes, by having the school actively involved in under-privileged feeder schools. The argument that an insufficient proportion of students are eligible to attend a grammar school can be addressed by providing more places, i.e. by expanding grammar schools. And there's no particular reason why there has to be only a single point of entry. My school accepted entrants at 11, 13, 16 and at other points in between.

Overall attainment in a selective educational area decreases only because the quality of other schools is so low. That is not inherent in a selective education system, although it might well have been in the past. Idealistically, we should aim to improve all schools - catering to all needs. There is no need for us to choose between grammar schools on the one hand, and raising standards at comprehensives on the other. There are even proposed mechanisms for ensuring that this happens within a finite budget, such as mandating that the grammar is part of a multi-school trust. And we can be smarter about how we measure success, too, recognising that a student's lower academic ability does not equate to failure.

The problem of a single entrance exam, and the possibility of richer students being coached to pass, can both be overcome by use of different entrance criteria. In fact, I believe that the problem has already been solved once before. At the time of my own 11-plus exam, teachers told my parents that the procedure was roughly this: the school marked coursework for students over a period of years, identifying the most able. The exam was then used to benchmark schools against one another. Finally, the highest-ranked pupils from each school were selected. My parents were told - twice, a few years apart - that both my sister and I could have missed the exam entirely and still be certain of a place at grammar school. Coaching would have made no difference either way. I am very surprised that this approach is not documented anywhere. I can't believe that the teachers lied to my parents, especially when the mechanism that they described makes more sense than the current one-shot test.

Why do I support the expansion of grammar schools? Because I believe that it would be unconscionable for me to argue against a system from which I have personally benefited so substantially. Just as I benefited from a free university education, and hence disagree with the principle of exorbitant tuition fees; and just as I have benefited from the NHS, and therefore support that organisation (despite its obvious flaws). Let me repeat: I understand that my grammar education was an opportunity and a privilege, and notwithstanding all arguments to the contrary, it would be unethical for me to want to deny the same privilege to others.

It is widely reported that the current younger generation is the first in decades to be worse off than their parents. The generation now approaching retirement have systematically pulled up the drawbridges behind them, cutting off younger people from the decades of social progress from which they prospered. I think we owe it to the younger generation to reverse this and open up opportunities for them; to give gifted children from less well-off backgrounds a genuine chance to succeed. Equality of opportunity does not mean that we have to place the most gifted students in the same classroom as the less able, and those who simply don't want to learn; but that we strive to design an education system that benefits all according to their unique needs.

The selective system is not without its flaws, but it is better to fix those flaws than to resign ourselves to a mediocre average.

Monday, 20 February 2017

366 giorni della lingua italiana

For the past year, I have been learning Italian, practising a few words every single day, using an app called Duolingo. (In fact I started more than a full year ago, but the app allows for me to take short breaks from time to time.)

Apart from 1,500 words of vocabulary, here are a few things I've learned about the process and about myself over this period.

It's much easier to learn a language when you're motivated - even if the rationale is spurious

Why did I choose Italian? No greater reason than I love visiting Italy.

I don't think learning Italian is likely to make a difference to my career prospects. I recognise that there are many other languages that I could have picked that would be more useful in a globalised economy. Yet Italian is the fourth most-studied language in the world.

Surely most students of Italian have chosen it with their hearts, rather than their heads. Like many of them, I have been seduced by the place. I have an ill thought-through fantasy that I will take early retirement to buy a little farmhouse in Umbria, where chickens roam freely among the vines and where I can press my own olives.

At this point, I was going add a little "top ten" list to explain why I love Italy so much, but I can't realistically limit myself to ten items.

But it's worked. I've stayed motivated. I've graduated from an audio course, to a phrase-a-day calendar, to daily lessons.

My wife, by contrast, did well at first but didn't stick with Italian. But she's now found a different language that she's interested to learn, and has her own motivations for doing so - and has notched up a very good run already.

Gamification works

The Duolingo app is actually kind of basic - a small selection of different types of exercise. Its success is down to two things: first, a thoughtfully graduated selection of vocabulary along with a successful algorithm for selecting words to be practised; and second, gamification.

Gamification means that the app treats learning like a kind of game, with rewards for completing particular tasks. The gamification elements of Duolingo include Experience Points, Levels, Badges, and a virtual currency. The virtual currency, called Lingots, is, of course, totally worthless in the real world, as are the virtual things that it buys.

For me, the most important gamification element is the "streak": a simple count of the number of consecutive days that I have reached my daily goal. That now stands at exactly one year. I am disproportionately proud of this fact and I would genuinely be crushed if it were to reset for some reason. For me, that's all the motivation I need to make sure that I do a small amount of practice every day.

And the instruction method itself does, indeed, work. I am certain that I am retaining more information through brief daily practice sessions than I would do if I tried to study for a full hour, once a week.

Different media helps, but learning a language through audio course alone is very hard

The Duolingo experience on desktop is quite different to that provided by the app. Using both together is ideal. The mixture of reading, writing and listening exercises is genuinely helpful. I now find that I can do many of the translation exercises solely by listening to the Italian, rather than reading it, which is a good confidence boost.

I was much less successful in my first attempt to learn Italian using an audio-only course. I could parrot particular phrases, but without being able to see the sentence written down, I had no hope of understanding the grammar or even picking apart individual words in the given examples.

Italian is an easy language

I studied French and Latin at school to GCSE level - admittedly a long time ago. Italian's vocabulary is very similar to French and is, of course, ultimately derived from Latin. And, barring a few "false friends" and irregular constructions, Italian often frequently overlaps English. So it's actually a pretty straightforward language for me to learn. I am under no illusions that this is typical; a language such as Japanese would be at least an order of magnitude harder.

I'm still not fluent (and probably never will be)

Duolingo includes a score of fluency, but even Duolingo's biggest fans ridicule and ignore it. I am at a score of 42% but, with a vocabulary of less than 2,000 words, I do not believe this has any real-world meaning. In point of fact, I very seriously struggled to converse in Italian during a recent holiday.

This is likely to be a significant problem with learning any language without interaction with other speakers. Identifying and translating short sentences, even ones with idiomatic meanings, are far easier in isolation than in the context of an actual conversation.

There's an Internet connection everywhere and finding five minutes each day is easy

I have maintained my year-long "streak" despite some pretty significant life events over the past year, and despite being stuck in some unexpected places for both work and leisure. However, the successful streak means that I can say with certainty that I have had daily access to a WiFi connection, and that I have had my tablet to hand for at least five minutes every single day.

I may not be as wedded to an always-on Internet as some in the Millennials generation, but nor have I been without it for more than 24 hours.

I'm unbelievably risk-averse (or the app doesn't understand my motivations)

After a recent update to the app, I am now offered a daily wager: bet Lingots against maintenance of a week-long streak. On the face of it, this is a great deal - I'm already very highly motivated to maintain my streak, so this should just be a guaranteed little bonus. Yet I never take the bet.

We could speculate that I have an exceptionally low tolerance for risk. But actually, the truth is, I don't care at all about winning a few extra Lingots. My motivation lies elsewhere. I think it's great that Duolingo continues to experiment with different ideas, but not all its experiments are successful. I don't think that this wager adds anything to the learning experience. Similarly, there is now a tendency to interrupt lessons with a screen that is intended to be motivational ("Three in a row! Well done!") but actually this just gets in the way; I expect this feature will be quietly dropped in a future update.

It's almost impossible to learn when tired

It's obvious that our mental faculties decline when we are tired, but learning with Duolingo has provided me with solid evidence of just how useless I am at the end of a long day. When tired, I will typically elect to do a practice lesson rather than study new vocabulary. Generally, if I undertake a practice lesson before about 9pm, I can complete it with few or zero mistakes. But if I leave it just a little later - 10.30pm, say - then I might make errors on more than half of the exercises. Some exercises I will get wrong even after being shown the correct answer.

This trend is so stark that it has me wondering about other activities that I might attempt when tired. For example, is it safe to drive if my error rate has gone up to this extent? And beyond what point is it counter-productive to stay late at work?

Friday, 8 January 2016

Boom! Whack! An inspirational team-building exercise using percussion (quietly)

​I recently had the opportunity to run a team-building exercise within my normal group of colleagues. I had a blank canvas. Previous exercises had ranged from the deadly serious (a brainstorm of the diversity issues preventing us from being a fully-inclusive workplace) to the silly (a quiz of observation, in which we were sent out of the room and subsequently had to identify which physical attributes / articles of clothing our colleagues had changed during our absence).

I immediately wanted to do something musical, if possible; something that would be enjoyable, but also force us to work as a team. My first idea was to acquire a set of those Christmas crackers containing tuned whistles. With one person per whistle, this is the ultimate in building a co-ordinated team: in fact, the players are more dependent on one another than they would be in a real band. Everyone must play exactly on cue, otherwise the melody simply doesn't work.

I also researched companies that would come into the office and run singing or percussion workshops. Apart from the cost, I foresaw one major issue with this - and also with my cracker whistle idea - which is that we'd rather quickly become deeply unpopular if we held a noisy bongo workshop in a meeting room next door to a customer sales pitch.

Tactfully tuneful

So now I was on the hunt for something musical, but quiet, and also cheap. With just a few days to go, I discovered a website describing Boomwhackers. Boomwhackers are coloured plastic tubes of varying lengths. When hit against a hand, thigh, or immovable object, they produce a dull thud that happens to be a pitched note. A complete set of eight Boomwhackers contains a diatonic octave. It is also possible to buy sets that add the semitones to form a full chromatic octave, or to extend the range to a second or third octave. A simple plastic cap over one end of the tube alters the pitch down by an octave, providing even more options. (For reasons that a physicist can explain better than me, the resonance of a tube with a closed end produces a standing wave of half the wavelength of the standing wave in the same-length tube with an open end. This supposedly explains why a clarinet plays at a lower pitch than a flute, despite being of similar lengths.)

Because they are simple, cheap, brightly-coloured and indestructible, Boomwhackers are used mainly in early-years musical education. A search on YouTube found that they are used by adults primarily as a comedy esoteric musical instrument, in much the same way that a kazoo might be. Audiences apparently find them delightfully funny; in order to play any sufficiently advanced music, the players must be constantly and frenetically picking up and putting down different tubes.

Thanks to Amazon Prime's next-day delivery, I acquired two sets of Boomwhackers. With the help of an enthusiastic Boomwhacker blog, I created a set of Boomwhacker "sheet music" of gradually-increasing difficulty. I reasoned that some of the workshop participants would not be able to read traditional music notation, so I used a simple block representation.

The scratch orchestra

I announced that we would be forming a scratch orchestra of sorts, with a stated aim of learning and playing a piece of music, with harmonies, within the half-hour slot I had allowed. There was a moment of mirth when I opened my holdall to reveal the Boomwhackers for the first time, but also an immediate sense of some excitement when I demonstrated how they worked. Everyone grabbed one or two each, and we ran through the first couple of exercises - simple scales - with ease. It was working well.

The remaining exercises introduced different rhythms and a modest amount of harmony, to get the participants used to reading more than one line of "sheet music" at a time. Finally, we came to the promised outcome: the traditional song, Frère Jacques, to be played as a round. The first run-through was scrappy, but after just a couple of attempts, we managed a more than passable performance. There was even a little cheer at the end, and everyone was grinning.


Assuming that you could allow half an hour, I'd be confident running this workshop as the ice-breaker at the start of a conference, say. Sure, there will probably be some people who aren't that musical; but I think they'll have fun anyway. There might be a handful of people who see such an exercise as a waste of time, but my participants seemed to buy into the idea that we were doing something as a team that we could not possibly have achieved without the full co-operation of everyone present.