mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
Yesterday on the radio I heard Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, defending her handsome salary, making the point that competition for vice-chancellors occurs in a global marketplace and she would be paid rather more in the US. This morning, somewhat in response, we had Jo Johnson MP, the Minister for Universities and Science, defending funding arrangements for universities. Now I receive an broadcast e-mail from the Vice-Chancellor here, the University of Dundee, expressing pleasure at our being shortlisted as University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards which I would guess helps to validate his salary.

I was lucky to be born early enough that my own university education in England was paid for rather more by grant than by student loans and what loan I did have had a low interest rate. Now England has moved to a system that is dominated by loans at a higher interest rate. Especially, as a student I had the sense that the taxpayer, not me, was paying for my education and that probably affected my attitude to it.

One concern I have is the idea of having to pay competitive market rates for university staff. It may be a mistake to consider money as the principal attractor to positions in English public universities. )

Another concern I have is the change in mindset that comes from students feeling that they are paying for their own education. Pleasing the student customers is not the same as requiring worthwhile academic success of them. )
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
One show I miss from the television of my childhood is the Open University's lectures for distance learners. I have a hazy memory of an interesting sequence of increasing positive integers where it looked as if it was going to be one thing and it turned out to be another. I vaguely recall that for the first six numbers or so the sequence looked arithmetically obvious, like powers of two, but was in fact something else arising from geometry.

Somebody on a helpful online community managed to offer a good hypothesis for what I was trying to remember: from The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences we have sequence A000127: Maximal number of regions obtained by joining n points around a circle by straight lines. Also number of regions in 4-space formed by n-1 hyperplanes.

I ought to get around to finding myself some free online streaming that replaces those televised lectures that I welcomed.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
We spent the evening at a local concert hall to attend the high school's annual prizegiving. The school's orchestra and choir performed. The orchestra was quite entertaining in that they were a little on the ropey side of being good but I suppose that in education one should push gently at one's boundaries. I realized that it has been years since I was close to any kind of orchestra.

The parade of children across the stage receiving their certificates and trophies and whatnot certainly underlined the variety of shapes and sizes in which humans come. Further, there was clothing variation. In my school prefects had a distinct tie but I don't recall much more differentiation. One of our children already has a different school tie than when they first started. The jacket sleeve cuffs appear to come with a variety of colored stripes: many children had none, but some had up to two gold stripes and I think I saw some with as many as a gold stripe and two purple. With my own children I inquired after the command structure; in responding they were somewhat vague. I think that the two-gold are the highest level of prefect and the purple is more about other kinds of helping out.

A further variation was shirt sleeve length. Boys simply had short sleeves or long. One girl appeared to have nothing worthy of being called a sleeve. Some girls had cap sleeves and some had a fifth length, extending only just beyond their elbow. The girl with the intimidating double bass had such half-length sleeves.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
I heard on the radio last week that 14% of students in schools need some kind of extra assistance. That figure seemed high to me so I searched for corroboration. I found the Department for Education's Special educational needs: an analysis and summary of data sources from September 2016 and, at least in England, indeed 14.4% of children last year had special educational needs and 11.6% of children were receiving support for such, something beyond the school's usual provision for students, like specialist help. Boys rather outnumber girls among those children. Of course, the special needs children tend not to do as well academically as the other children.

Nearly a quarter of the special needs children have moderate learning difficulty. It is the social, emotional and mental health ones who tend to get permanently excluded from school.

14.4% is around one child in seven but I suppose that dyslexia alone accounts for a good few percent of people. I also wonder if issues might be more likely in more economically depressed areas – poorer nutrition, greater domestic stresses, whatever – more remote from the schools with which I am more familiar. I may well be wrong: for all I know it is the more affluent families who are able to get around to arranging proper diagnosis and help – official special needs status – in the first place.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
My children attend high school here in Scotland. Unlike the typical American four-year high school, this extends a couple more years into younger children, thus lasting six in all, though students may leave after four. My children often seem annoyed by others disrupting classes. We initially chose the school (hence our abode) based in part on relatively good inspection reports. However, my children are often bringing home anecdotes about all manner of misbehavior: students standing up and answering back to teachers, skipping class, occupying other rooms in which others' classes are being held; many of the teachers appear to have little control over the students. Occasionally my children overhear teachers muttering about how they would rather be teaching elsewhere. The anecdotes are sometimes partially corroborated by articles in a local newspaper about difficulties at the school.

It is difficult for me to know what to expect. My secondary education was now a good couple of decades ago, in an English public school, public in the UK sense of being an established private school, state instead being the term for the normal government-funded system, and that before corporal punishment was outlawed in private schools. Discipline was such that on a hot day we were to remove our blazer only if the headmaster had issued the appropriate order and we also rolled up our shirt sleeves, one mayn't do one without the other; boys were sent home for infractions like overly long hair. When I became a prefect as a student I had the authority to issue some mild punishments and to recommend others such as detentions. Being private, the school had freedom to expel pupils with little more impact than the loss of their fees.

But, that was then. In a modern, state-funded school, what ought I to expect? I do not have enough primary evidence to publicly judge my children's high school and I certainly do not know enough to have confidence in my impression that among teachers their school is not one of the desired posts. Further, I have little to suggest in terms of remediation: what can schools do to improve student discipline? My Latin teacher used to tweak our ears and even that didn't keep our class wholly in line. I do not know what classroom management techniques are taught in teacher training but I wonder if teachers are relatively powerless, whether for technical, procedural reasons or political ones. Furthermore, I wonder if my children's school may number among the better, if these issues are quite typical in the modern state school system.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
I watch some arts documentaries. I have very little background in the arts but I like to learn about new things. In these sad times when the BBC no longer show Open University lectures early in the morning, for televisual edification I am forced to rely mostly on evening mini-series on BBC Four, though perhaps if I hunted further online I would find more than poorly recorded live presentations.

As well as enjoying arts documentaries, I am interested to notice how I form opinions of the presenters despite not having the knowledge to confidently judge what they say. For example, Andrew Graham-Dixon seems a nice enough fellow and shows us interesting things but I just don't quite buy everything he says about them all. Not the objective facts, of course, more about the things' significance and effect: he sees things in them that I do not have faith are truly there.

In contrast, I typically find Jonathan Meades more persuasive even though he does not shy from opinions* from which I infer that he often does not voice the consensus in a field but, despite my lack of background, his thinking feels so well-anchored and -constructed that I am more eager to take what he says as scaffold across my own ignorance. Where he is controversial then I expect that he at least makes a valid point.

Sometimes I am able to come back and partially correct my ignorance, to look at source material for myself and reappraise the credibility of others' view of it. However, life is short and some mirrors are dark to me. For example, the late Colin Wilson thought it quite clear what David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus was really saying, beyond the strange fantasy story at its surface. It is a shame that I did not press him for more detail as I am so poor at seeing beyond the obvious in literature that I must rely on others to help me know what to think.

*Examples might include,

  • Accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons.

  • The sacred cow of sustainability is due for slaughter.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
In helping Benjamin with his revision I find that I remember some things more easily than he. While I can recall much that I was taught over twenty-five years ago, he forgets the same thing from a few weeks ago, perhaps something we have already also gone over at home. Revision helps him to dust off hazy memories but for his sake I wish it required less effort for him in the first place. I have not remembered everything: for example, despite being well-drilled in it at the time, I think I have forgotten a bunch of rotational dynamics with pendulums and whatnot. On average I think I remember a couple of years' teaching less of my school subjects than I once knew. But, much was interesting enough that it easily stuck for the long term. With his revision, at least Benjamin still does well.

I think that interest is key. Just as Benjamin does recall much detail of collectible card games, I easily forget domestic trivia. For instance, exercise seems to make my nose run, so this morning in the bedroom I intended to bring my handkerchief downstairs when I came to work out. Downstairs, I wondered if I had done this, and indeed I found the handkerchief in the expected place. What I do not know is if I was even mindful of bringing it downstairs, but forgot, or if I was entirely on autopilot. My UK driving test still puzzles me: obviously I was mentally engaged with that but immediately afterward I had almost no memory of it. (My Ohio test I recall but that was trivial.)

My exercise continues to frustrate somewhat. I am still not back at the level I was before visiting Cornwall. And, my performance continues to vary according to factors I cannot identify. Within the first five minutes I can guess if it is going to go well. One remaining theory is that my performance has less to do with my physical fitness and more to do with my brain varying in what signals it sends about how much it prefers me not to do this. I do not know how much to trust the precision with which the machine sets the resistance level but the variance in my performance is high enough that I think it is probably more about me than the machine. I have a few theories about the relevant independent variables, such as time of day, but nothing yet for which a regression would give a sufficiently low p-value. My approach is to persist anyway and hope that the long-term trend continues to be good.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
At work in Dundee when I stroll across main campus it is now full of students. Presumably the freshmen are settled in and have made friends, expressed themselves through the medium of poster purchases, and adopted a new routine. It got me thinking back to my own time at Cambridge (England*) as a student. I spent quite a lot of time interacting with friends instead of studying and I don't regret that at all. Those friendships still mean a lot to me.

Since graduating, then moving around a lot over later years, I haven't had much in the way of close friendships with people actually somewhat colocated with me. That I do regret, but only isasmuch as I couldn't both have my cake and eat it. While there is much about my life I wish were different, the choices I did make provided me with experience, and experiences, I'd not now wish to trade.

Still, I have a clear memory of much of my time with friends decades ago, and a handful of subsequent experiences have revealed to me that I'm unusual in so naturally putting relationships on pause: at least, in a way that I can comfortably step right back into them. In how I am with people, I have changed little since graduating, but I get the impression that people expect more initial awkwardness and I thus wonder how time might have changed them. I am often guessing what people might think or say about something in my life even though I have now not much seen them for a very long time. It may be relevant that my personal memories are generally rather loosely timestamped.

In general I am very happy to see people again and learn about how they are and what has been going on, it is really just the circumstance of living far from them that keeps me quite literally away. Returning to the Cambridge area would partially solve that. There is much to attract me there but, goodness, partly due to local council decisions, not the city itself. There were various nails in that supercilious Cambridge is full, go away coffin while we lived there but I think one of the last was making the road to the railway station open to taxis only, I could no longer drop off or pick up visitors in a private car. Columbus, OH, while hardly being a tourist destination, remains far closer to my heart, and there is a handful of people there too whom I miss.

*It confuses the issue that I spent a couple of years working in Cambridge, MA, which is the main place I've bicycled; one of my colleagues at work there graduated from the University of Cambridge. In this journal entry I am not referencing time in Massachusetts. And, I've not stopped in Cambridge, OH, for much longer than to get gas.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
I went to a good secondary school; the government paid my fees )

I am therefore curious to read present-day BBC reports of how,
Sir Michael Wilshaw said despite the education watchdog's efforts to stretch the brightest children, little progress has been made in England's schools.

He highlighted how gifted children from poor homes entitled to pupil premium money were still lagging well behind.

What is most depressing is that the brightest children from disadvantaged backgrounds are the most likely not to achieve their full potential.
My own luck continued. Despite my regional accent and neither of my parents having attended university, I was admitted to King's College, Cambridge. The BBC report that,
The lowest perception of value for money is in England, at about 32% …

In Cambridge, for 18-year-old applicants, there were 1,260 places gained by students in the top fifth most privileged areas, compared with 65 places for those from the least advantaged. There were 30 black students gaining places compared with 270 Asian and 1,785 white students.

There are no breakdowns by private or state education …
Perhaps my only real disadvantage was economic: I am white, male, born in England, from a two-parent household. My parents did not have much income while I was in secondary school and we lived in mid-Cornwall, then one of the poorer areas of the country.

the government also mostly paid for my undergraduate degree )
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
In the UK we have the Open University which provides means for those later in life, in actual jobs, etc., to do distance learning and earn respectable degrees. When I was young I enjoyed watching the lectures that they would televise, early at the weekends if I recall correctly. There was a good range of courses and the material tended to be interesting and well-delivered. I thought it a great public service to have such available.

Then, things changed; the televised lectures disappeared. I assumed that they were still made and available, just only to paying students, but some recent conversation suggests that not to be the case: the teaching approach has changed more fundamentally. The Open University do collaborate with the BBC on making documentaries but that's really not the same, it's more an interesting taste than actual teaching. Of course, these days various instructional presentations can be found on YouTube and its ilk: perhaps the televised lectures of my childhood now have adequate equivalents conveniently to hand.

(An aside: I was surprised that the recently repeated Order and Disorder (2012) got so far toward articulating some relationship between thermodynamic entropy and Shannon entropy but then stopped short.)

This got me to thinking. The Open University's become rather expensive these days: perhaps more due to less government support than more moneygrubbing but, either way, it has. But, surely the teaching is more expensive than the examining? Who offers accredited examination-based degrees without also wanting to provide the associated teaching, i.e., at a good price?

I don't know the answer. In investigating, I did discover the University of London International Programmes who, for instance, offer a distance-learning Graduate Diploma in Mathematics for £1,556, which would probably do me good. That includes study materials of some kind at least. I wonder who the alternatives are.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
In Babylon 5 (1994) telepaths' power was rated numerically on the psi scale: for example, when we met them we soon learned that both Lyta and Talia were rated P5, useful but not noteworthy. With modern British primary schools tending to organize year groups from P1, the youngest, up through P7, Miranda thus has occasion to tell me things that sound strange, such as asserting that some child we see outside is a P5.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
Further to my previous cut, school isn't an intensive educational experience, it now turns out that Miranda has now completed all the mathematics that they are permitted to teach her in primary school. She may still do mathematical things, of course, they just can't teach her anything further. I guess at least they let her go at her own pace while they could.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
Another matter in current British news is that of taking children out of school for holidays at times of year when they cost less. The whole debate is sounding grossly oversimplified and the interviews with parents on the news make for painful listening: now we don't know what to do! we're so confused! (well, not quite in those words).

It sounds as if there is a lack of imagination or judgment on the part of the local councils. There is not some simple formula whereby days out of school equate to worse education. To begin with, examination performance is not the be-all and end-all of education. I put forward some examples )

Further, I wonder how much more educational school is than time with educated parents in other contexts. For secondary school and sixth form I attended a public (in the British sense) school and certainly did not feel that my time was wasted. However, with Miranda and Benjamin at different state schools, when we ask them about their day, I am often disappointed by how much of their time appears to be wasted from the point of view of their own education, more so even than one would expect from simply having to manage many children at once. school isn't an intensive educational experience ) Dawn and I between us are well-educated indeed and we make a point to try to pass plenty on: and examples of this abound ) Dawn and I are both very conscious of our responsibility to prepare our children for life as independent adults.

I should thus disagree strongly were the authorities to assume that time out of school is necessarily deleterious for children. I am struck by how such a view is emerging from a Conservative government: I would have thought that they would be much stronger on personal responsibility than the state knows best. Parents do have a responsibility to ensure that their children are properly educated and, while I accept that a couple of weeks at a Disney theme park is very probably not the optimal alternative to school, I nonetheless propose that lack of school attendance is but a weak proxy for assessing how well parents fulfil their duty, one which might appeal to the lazy who daren't trust anybody's actual judgment. The whole debate makes me wonder what the country's attitude is to home-schooling: my guess now is that it might give the authorities the willies. In some respects I think that the religious fundamentalists do the US a great service in pushing for some choice in how their children are educated.
mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
I found myself thinking back to my full-time education. While attending King's College, Cambridge, at the examinable subjects I worked far less than many of my colleagues and eventually got a lower second in my finals. I actually pick up technical things quite quickly and easily -- in NatSci 1A I got into the habit of actually listening to lectures instead of frantically transcribing them, then in our college bar afterward helping people to understand the material -- and it is more from that than actual detailed study that I even managed to pass.

Certainly not now having a doctorate has been disabling career-wise. For many years for the US Department of Defense I was successfully playing a leading role in advanced research. I found that I enjoyed it and was good at it. However, in looking for that kind of position elsewhere, between not being able to talk about the most interesting work and not on paper being obviously good at it, I wasn't an appealing candidate. There were small glimmers: for example, at Vecna one of the research team noticed that I was very good at helping him to write research grant proposals, but he had little authority to actually task me with that.

Some background would help: I got sick of examinations and stopped studying )

but learned other useful things )

and wouldn't have liked a postdoc career anyway )

One might reasonably respond to the above: Well, that's nice, even if I believe that you're good at getting difficult technical things done, you couldn't bring yourself to study for examinations, now you can't get to do interesting research work and even if you did then other aspects of your job would annoy you too much, so where does that leave you? I have thoughts on that but not for this entry.
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