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March 05, 2006

School Choice in Minneapolis

A good article on school choice in Minneapolis from the Washington Post

…in 2003–04, black enrollment [in state schools] was down 7.8%, or 1,565 students. In 2004–05, black enrollment dropped another 6%. Black parents have good reasons to look elsewhere. Last year, only 28% of black eighth-graders in the Minneapolis public schools passed the state's basic skills math test; 47% passed the reading test. The black graduation rate hovers around 50%, and the district's racial achievement gap remains distressingly wide. Louis King, a black leader who served on the Minneapolis School Board from 1996 to 2000, puts it bluntly: "Today, I can't recommend in good conscience that an African-American family send their children to the Minneapolis public schools. The facts are irrefutable: These schools are not preparing our children to compete in the world." Mr. King's advice? "The best way to get attention is not to protest, but to shop somewhere else."

They can do so because of the state's longstanding commitment to school choice. In 1990 Minnesota allowed students to cross district boundaries to enroll in any district with open seats. Two years later in St. Paul, the country's first charter school opened its doors. (Charter schools are started by parents, teachers or community groups. They operate free from burdensome regulations, but are publicly funded and accountable.) Today, this tradition of choice is providing a ticket out for kids in the gritty, mostly black neighborhoods of north and south- central Minneapolis.

Read in full here.

Again, the issue of vouchers / more choice within the state system choice isn’t one of public sector vs. private sector. Whether public or private, some schools are great, some average, some poor. Advocating more choice is to acknowledge that poor state schools exist and that under the status quo some have no choice but to attend them. They can certainly improve but while they’re trying to do so, why not make it easier for other parties (charities, businesses, parents, religious groups, etc.) to step in. While education secretaries promise imminent turnaround, the future of many students is being affected in a non-beneficial way. Our goal is good quality education. Who it's provided by is secondary. The quoted article illustrates that it’s not just well-to-do families who are willing to look into better alternatives for their children and new schools wouldn't cater soley children deemed wealthy and bright.

August 13, 2005

Secondary Schools and Selection – Response to comments

Below, Iíll address some points raised by a commenter on this post about sorting secondary school students by ability.

1) Objections raised included the shortage of empirical evidence showing all groups benefit from ability sorting. Two examples of papers (which disagree with me) on the issue were kindly highlighted and can be found here and here.

Rather than contradicting my original premise, the papers highlighted a number of issues worthy of consideration before putting sorting into practice:

Attitudes of classes Ė Reasons for sorting should be explained clearly beforehand. Those in lower tiers should be reassured that theyíve been separated in order to devote more attention to their specific needs, not in an attempt to stop them dragging others down. Children should be assured that their position isnít set in stone, with strong relative performance being grounds for movement to higher sets.

Teacher attitudes and assumptions Ė Student sorting may have yielded poorer results for less able students due to teacher underestimation of group ability. If teachers choose not to push students, settling for a mediocre set of results, their fate is sealed.

Grouping mechanism Ė Diversity of abilities within groups should be considered. Mechanical procedures, such as skimming off the 10% in a given class will yield negligible results if a large proportion of students are in the bottom tail of the sample. Similarly, sorting by ability is pointless if thereís little difference in overall ability anyway (the case for subjects which are rarely conceptually difficult: arts, social studies)

Any deterioration in the performance of those not in top groups will be down to issues such as the above. If theyíre addressed before sorting takes place, thereís little or no reason to expect the performance of the less able to deteriorate. Evidence may show those with most ability donít benefit hugely, but donít forget theyíre at the upper bounds of ability anyway. With solid implementation of ability groups, tradeoffs between the performance of the most able and those of everyone else are redundant Ė everyone gains.

2) Another objection regarded the importance of discussion within groups and learning from the insights of others. Splitting groups by ability may impact the quality and scale of such cooperative learning. Taking this argument to its limit, a world in which everyone has a private tutor, dedicated to his/her academic improvement would be wholly undesirable.

This simply isnít the case if you allow for discussions with teachers rather than limiting them to the role of orators. Discussion is great, but in the real world oneís peers rarely come up with ideas which couldnít have been put forward by the group leader who has most likely studied the topic in question at length. Regardless of group numbers, a teacher who understands the topic can coax ideas out of students and bring new arguments to their attention. My experience suggests group size is a poor indicator of overall participation and quality of discussion. Participation and discussion are a function of enthusiasm and interest Ė itís either there, or it isnít. In any case subjects conducive to segregation by ability (e.g. abstract topics like physics & maths) tend not to require discussion or debate anyway.

3) Finally, the idea of indivdualised learning schemes was highlighted. This system allows the student to take control of the learning process, while teachers spend the majority of their time resolving problems rather than dictating notes. Students are given enough material to ensure boredom or lack of challenging material isnít an issue.

Though a worthy ideal, I question its use in all circumstances. Teacher driven learning has its place, particularly for subjects which are more challenging conceptually. Paper or computer based self-learning materials are not an adequate substitute for watching someone explain information verbally, gauging responses from students in real-time, and adjusting their pace and the number of examples given accordingly.

Thereís no reason why learner driven methods canít be used in conjunction with teacher led sessions within groups split by ability. Thatís in fact what used to happen in mathematics classes at school. A concept would be explained, examples given and questions of varied difficulty set for students to get on with. The teacher would then address individual questions, leaving everyone else to get on with it. The ability split remained important because a) It limited the number of students in a group and thus allowed all questions to be answered b) answers to queries raised by many could be addressed to the group as a whole via more explanation, or demonstration. In a mixed ability class, such further explanation of more difficult issues would be redundant to many and would reduce time available to answer more basic questions.

Other criticisms regarding my comparison of teachers in fee paying schools to those in state schools, and the need to aim for an ideal even if it's unattainable will be addressed later.

August 07, 2005

More on Secondary Schools

In this post, I stated that wide diversity of ability within schools isnít desirable if pupils are to reach their potential. Introducing less able students to a selective school thus cause results to deteriorate rather than pulling up those at the bottom. Here Iíll briefly talk about the source of student motivation within fee paying schools, a point ignored by the author of the article that spurred my original post.

Schools that have mostly deprived and unmotivated children, by contrast, drag everybody down. And schools that have mostly bright children from affluent homes pull everybody up. That is why rich parents are willing to pay school fees.

The last sentence isnít wholly accurate. A school culture which values performance is much the result of school fees, rather than something that would exist in their absence. A fee paying school must guarantee results above average if it is to remain in business. Teachers are likely to spend more time on lesson preparation, supplementary teaching outside of class time and will consciously push students beyond whatís strictly on the syllabus. Thatís not to say non-fee paying schools are incapable of such things; some achieve comparable if not better results. However, itíd be naÔve to think incentives schools have to encourage pupils and produce results are uniform.

Not only do schools have an interest in producing motivated students, but so do the parents themselves. Arguably, their role is far more important. When paying upwards of £7000 per term to educate a child, parents will take a much greater interest in performance. They will study reports to a greater degree, perhaps contacting teachers with concerns. Theyíll tell their children roughly whatís expected of them, making sure that homework, coursework and exam revision are not ignored.

Is it possible to create a similar culture of achievement and commitment to results within underperforming state schools? Is it possible to inspire interest in a childís schoolwork amongst parents whose most significant outlay is perhaps the morning school run? The social engineering efforts of many governments leave me doubtful. Whatís certain is that the current systemís malaise will persist so long as selective/fee paying schools are blamed for bad performance and criticised for being elitist.

August 04, 2005

Secondary Schools and Selection

Peter Wilby of the Guardian writes about education standards in comprehensive schools and the relatively poor results of those from deprived backgrounds. Below, Iíll comment on one of Peterís central ideas.

Secondary schools that have a "balanced intake" – a mix of rich and poor, able and less able – are the ones that do best. They raise the performance of the less able children and children from poor homes (not necessarily the same thing), with little or no detrimental effect on brighter children.

Read the article in full here.

Teachers are trained to handle students with varied temperaments, and abilities. Being able to manage a class with moderate to large variance in ability isnít the same as maximising the potential of each pupil. I attended a fee paying selective school in which the average pupil would be more capable than someone chosen randomly. Even in such an environment differences in ability were clear.

At times, I only just followed what was being taught whilst some struggled and others were visibly bored by the teacherís pace. In subjects such as mathematics this led to students being split into Ďsetsí of varying ability. Such divisions can be seen in schools of all types and suggest that the author is naÔve in thinking diversity in ability is key. Depending on the difficulty of topic, diversity will lead to segregation. Perhaps the author has an idealised view of the world in which better pupils band together to help those whoíre struggling; or maybe less capable pupils are inspired by the performance of others and double their work rate. Without meaning to sound too cynical my schooling experience suggests such cooperation would be limited in scale.

Teachers cannot easily spend time helping less capable students, whilst moving along fast enough for the median pupil and concurrently challenging the most able pupils. Homogeneity allows teaching thatís focused on the needs of the particular group; not split between the needs of many. Itís odd that the authorís idea of Ďbestí performance is limiting or accepting a small drop in the performance of the most able.

The truth is that if Labour really wants to improve social mobility, it has to be very bold indeed, perhaps using some kind of "banding" system that allocates fixed numbers of children of different abilities to each school, and possibly also a fixed quota of children on free meals. The old Inner London Education Authority had just such a system and it was abolished because the middle classes hated it. Labour may also have to introduce formal quotas to get more deprived children into elite universities.

Wilby's tacit acceptance that the potential of some students may be curbed is unacceptable and his suggestions (above) for improving the performance of the poor are naive. Wilby fails to address the source of motivation and culture within different types of school; a point I'll discuss in a later post.

April 21, 2005

Paying attention to what's important

The Creating Passionate Users blog had a post a while ago called ĎDealing with a legacy brainí which talked about how itís neigh impossible to pay full attention to whatever is important at a given point in time.

For learning, one of the best things you can do is whatever it takes to convince your brain that what you're learning is life-threatening or life-saving. What does your brain think is important? Novelty. Surprise. Sex. Danger. Shocking things. Stories. Human faces. Pleasure. Things that make you emotional. Things that move you, and things that cause you to move. Things that cause you to think deeply. Solving puzzles. Stories.

See the problem there?

Your stats textbook probably doesn't warrant a checkmark next to any of those. So, you'll have to retrofit it yourself. To trick your brain into thinking that what you're learning is important, find ways to add some of those things into what you're studying. But you can't do it by passively reading.

Towards the end of the post are a few suggestions on getting round the problem. As exam time looms, it may be worthwhile looking at a few of them.

A couple of examples:

  • Make pictures! Draw mind-maps. You can't possibly buy too many of those flip-chart-sized post-it notes, with some colorful Sharpie markers. If an illustration that the author creates is worth a thousand words, the picture that you draw is worth 10,000.

  • Use chunking and patterns — (more on that in another post) to group the content into meaningful arrangements, so that you don't have to learn as many individual arbitrary bits, and can focus on bigger chunks.

  • If you can find a way to link what you're studying to sex, go for it. Your brain won't forget, and your study partner may thank you. (Or, alternatively, slap you. Your brain won't forget that either.)

The latter suggestion may prove tricky when studying maths/stats/whatever, but there you go. The full post is here.

April 15, 2005

Student debt – Not Unreasonable

BBC News yesterday ran an article on student debt. According to surveys, the average student will leave university £13 501 in the red. Featured, was an interview from one such highly indebted student.

Debt is a worry for Gemma Tumelty as she approaches the end of four years at Liverpool University.

She expects to leave owing £18,000 and admits she does not know how she will pay it off. Student loans make up most of her debt, borrowing £3,000 in her first year and £4,000 each year since. But she also owes about £900 on her credit card and last summer had a £1,000 overdraft, which she has since paid off.

"It does scare me about how I'm going to pay off the money," says Gemma, who will earn about £17,000 when she goes to work full-time for the NUS in the summer. "I'm 24 and I can't see me getting a pension or being able to afford a house," she adds.

Full article here

The fatalistic attitude of Miss Tumelty is puzzling. Did she not think about how her debt would be paid off before embarking on a university education? Didnít she sit down and create a realistic budget?

A university education is no less of a serious investment than a car, or mortgage. At the age of 18, one is perfectly capable of looking ahead and deciding what job opportunities a given degree provides. If a degree opens no more opportunities than are available to someone with good A-levels, then common sense states itís probably not worthwhile financially.

If a degree permits a career in law, medicine or engineering for example, then £13 501 of debt is negligible given oneís earning potential over a lifetime. Thatís not to say degrees in English/Theatre/whatever is of less value from an intellectual viewpoint. They just donít open as many high-paying Ďdoorsí.

In fairness, even those who donít respond in the predictable NUS fashion may be put off a worthwhile course if credit is unavailable in the short run. The maximum loans available under Labour seem small in comparison to accommodation, tuition and living costs. This contributes to growing credit card debt with their high interest rates. Iím not sure whether commercial loans are available with special rates for students Ė any info appreciated. In any case, more credit should be made available, as promised by the Conservative education manifesto . Grants for particularly poor families wouldn't hurt either.

If you want to pay £13 501 for the Ďuniversity experienceí, or to read about stuff you find interesting, then go for it. Just donít complain if you leave with nothing but a piece of paper and an angry bank manager Ė the costs were clear beforehand. If £13 501 is too much to pay, drop out.

March 18, 2005

In the mood for work?

Itís that time of year again; revision season. For those whoíve started the joyous task of revision/essay writing, or those debating whether itís worth the effort, Iíll post any information that may prove useful as and when I come across it.

First few tips come courtesy of Openloops in a post called Are You in The Mood? In order to start those unpleasant tasks, the following is suggested:

Set yourself a time limit
Set a limit of 5 Ė 10 minutes; the exact amount of time is not important. Then, work steadily on the task until the end of the set time and then stop. Many times, however, after the project starts moving, youíll find you want to finish it.

Set up a reward for finishing the task
Promise yourself a simple reward such as a dinner out, a tall milkshake, a new Moleskine, anything that will propel you forward.
Do some ďLead UpĒ tasks
Instead of jumping right in, do some tasks that lead up to being able to complete main objective. Prepare the workspace. Gather materials. Find some soft music to listen to while working. This will sometimes get you ďin motionĒ to the point where itís easy to remain in motion (Remember Newton?).

In reality, limits will need to be longer than 5–10 minutes. Half an hour seems like a reasonable length of time to spend concentrating on a given topic. I imagine Ďrewardsí can be taken up at the end of a working day, or even in between half hour stints. Just make sure that these Ďmini rewardsí donít drag on, taking up as much time as the work itself.

March 16, 2005

Private Vs State schools. Should we aim for equality?

Some stream of consciousness writing on equality of education provision:

I donít think itís easy or at all possible to say whether inequality in whatever form is Ďjustí or Ďunjustí. As things stand, there exists a gap in the quality of services provided by state and private schools. On average, private schools allow pupils to achieve academic results far above average as well as allowing personal growth through extracurricular activities.

Why does such a gap exist? Private schools have access to better teachers (though higher salaries) and more resources in the form of technology and learning materials. Private schools have smaller class sizes and there is an inherent culture of excellence; an environment which places great emphasis on achievement. Finally, such schools have selection criteria which (arguably) filter out those likely to perform below average.

How can this quality differential be resolved?

Firstly, we could abolish private schools all together, or introduce legislation which makes their financial state untenable e.g. by preventing such institutions from claiming charity status and receiving tax breaks. Demand for these schools exists as there is a deficiency in provision elsewhere. Their abolition is a gross manipulation of the market for education and would do nothing to raise the quality of existing schools. Quality will remain low at best and the system will need to absorb a huge number of new students.

Secondly, we could bring about convergence by simply improving state schools. If there were an easy solution to the problems faced, we would have seen its implementation years ago. Despite endless initiatives and growth in funding the quality gap persists. Itís said that bad policy breeds bad policy. Perhaps state provision places limits on how good the system can be, and efforts to improve it in its current state will be wholly ineffective. I reckon itís impossible for the state to match services provided by schools relying on academic results for survival. The state system can provide below par services with no fear of demise in funding or demand. There are no real pressures to move towards greater efficiency and quality.

Finally, we could explore alternatives to state provision of education. Iím wary of saying we should leave the whole process to market forces as education is key if there is to be any social mobility whatsoever. Education is one of those things Iíd hate to see people do without. I donít think the current quality differential is so large that those within the system will be denied opportunities available to others in the long run.

Even if itís possible to match the private sector, given the blatant diminishing returns to capital, the process of raising funds would simply create more serious problems elsewhere. Greater funding though tax inevitably creates negative incentives at the limit, and reduces the countryís economic competitiveness. Thatís without considering the non-existent political will to inflict further tax increases on the population and the numerous other institutions which face fiscal problems such as the NHS. Monetary constraints therefore prevent progress beyond a certain point.

To summarise, the possibilities available for creating Ďequality of opportunityí are severely flawed. We must accept that inequality is here to say even if itís not ideal. We should not consider equality as a goal to be worked towards. There is a clear trade off between equality and overall quality, market responsiveness and competitiveness. Earnest efforts to create a state system equal to that of the private sector will prove ineffective and will create problems elsewhere. I have no faith whatsoever in the governmentís ability to consciously design a system which works as well as one motivated by market forces. The government should be happy with an 'adequate' system. If it wants real quality, it's going about things the wrong way.

March 03, 2005

World Book Day 2005


Bananas About Books!

World Book Day 2005 will take place on Thursday 3rd March.
2005 will see World Book Dayís eighth year as the biggest annual celebration of books and reading in the UK and Ireland. For specific information about Ireland, please click here.

Always keen to grow and to build upon previous yearís successes, World Book Day will have an exciting additional element for both children and adults Ė Spread the Word.

Giving and receiving a recommendation of a favourite book is a real pleasure and itís never been easier. Pick up one of our eight special postcards at any of our bookshop, library or other partners, look for it as an insertion in one of your usual newspapers or magazines or click here to send an e-card to a friend or colleague.

The updated archive of the last two yearsí fantastic World Book Day Online Reading Festival is also now available on You can see many of your favourite authors for both adults and children talk about their work, influences and the pleasure of books and reading.
Happy World Book Day!


Why not take that half finished book off the shelf and make a new start, or head down to the library or bookstore for something new!

Alternatively, you could just go about your daily business given that almost every day is dedicated to something or other. Thatís no fun though :)

February 08, 2005

Studying irrelevant topics

Jeremy Hiebert quotes Aaron Campbell on the motivations students have when pursuing an education. He notes that what often keeps students going whilst on the treadmill of education is pressure from external sources as opposed to an intrinsic interest in the subjects at hand. Similar reasoning could be applied to our choices of subject here at university. Work is rarely easy, but having to study things that are of no interest whatsoever must be incredibly demoralising. We all succumb to these influences to some extent. It could be considered foolish to pursue a university education in a given subject without considering what doors would be opened or closed in the future as a result due to the views of others. Some level of compromise is clearly required.

Students are motivated inwardly to learn. Like all people, they're driven in some form or another to pursue what interests them, be it video games, sports, nature, books, or the proverbial 'sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll'. What propels many students through the educational institutions of society is not these genuine interests, but rather those motivational factors applied from without: pressure from parents and society, fear of failure, the power of authority. If a student is lucky enough for his or her intrinsic interests to be aligned with what school offers, fine. But for a significant number of students, much of what school offers is a grinding chore. In many school settings, there is little outlet for students to pursue what truly interests them. In this sense, their interests are supressed, their creativity stiffled, and their freedom curtailed. Is it no wonder so many behavioral problems exist?

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