Thursday, December 27, 2007

Just in case you thought I was exaggerating: Internet connections in South Africa

I have mentioned on several occasions the lack of access many people have to this space. Living as you almost certainly do in a broadband world, you probably don't even realise the extent to which you have become dependent on services that other people don't even know they lack. And it's not only the third world, either - I can't remember which of the Daves it is (Warlick or Snowden) who often bemoans the cost of Internet access in New Zealand. So, if I may:

This morning our post included the annual University of Cape Town alumni news magazine (UCT News 2007). In an article by one Chris McEvoy, called "Wireless technology makes Internet affordable" the opening paragraph runs as follows:

It's a well known fact that Internet access in South Africa is among the most expensive in the world. In fact, it is said that the average American teenager has access to more bandwidth than a medium-sized business in South Africa.
Sadly, the article neglects to mention who it is who says this, but it seems that someone has decided to do something about it.

An award-winning young startup called Skyrove, the brainchild of a computer engineer called Henk Kleynhans, has come up with an approach which allows providers to "install their own wifi hotspots to share the Internet with others" and then charge users per megabyte rather than the usual approach of being charged for time spent online.

In a country with unspeakably high unemployment rates, entrepeneurship is the most important source of job creation, and this company's approach appears to foster that in spades - according to the article: "anyone with IT experience can become a provider, set up as many hotspots as they want and earn ongoing income from it" using a router supplied by Skyrove which the provider connects to the ISP of their choice. Users then connect wirelessly to the Internet via the router using credits purchased online.

So there is hope! Who knows, perhaps my family will soon be able to see the pictures I send and Animoto videos I post for their benefit.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's only words...

In the past few months, I've developed an addiction for Scrabulous, which is an online version of Scrabble played via Facebook. I have been a fan of word games of various sorts since my mother taught me Scrabble shortly after her divorce as a way to fill the newly empty evenings.

One thing that took me by surprise was the passionate battle raging on Facebook between those who feel that profanities should be disallowed and those who resist such a move. I guess, having grown up playing word games, I have been able to distinguish between the concept of words per se and that of words for communication.

If a word is in the agreed dictionary for a game of Scrabble, it is allowed on the board during the game. This includes words I would only use under extreme duress and words I would never use at all. My culture, my faith, my (for want of a better term) station in life, my backgound, my upbringing, my age and even my gender have an influence over the words I will use to express myself, but I cannot deny that they are real words.

Time and fashion render some words profane that used to be an integral part of the language. In certain dialects, words will be considered rude that in other dialects don't even warrant a raised eyebrow. Some groups apply euphemistic nicknames to genetalia, while others simply opt for their proper names. Americans freshen up in the bathroom (which often doesn't contain a bath at all), while in the UK we go to the loo for a wee. The American term for one's rear is the same as the nickname given to female genitalia in the UK, while the term used for one's rear in the UK means a tramp or hobo in the US. Xhosa speakers in South Africa, when speaking English tend to use the term f***-all freely in all situations, blissfully unaware that it offends native English speakers. When these cultures bump up against each other, we have a choice: we either take offence or we recognise that words are weighted differently. Where do we draw the profanity line?

We also have the ability to adapt our language to our circumstance. I don't often refer to behaviourist pedagogies at home with my children. Many people I know who turn the air blue at work, utter nothing stronger than "flipping" around their children.

As a student of English, I have studied texts containing some very explicit language. This doesn't mean I consider it appropriate for every day use. I encouraged my children to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, even though I wouldn't tolerate for a moment their use of some of the language it contains.

If I were writing a play or a narrative, I might put words into the mouths of one of my characters that I wouldn't dream of using myself, simply because the character isn't me, and doesn't speak like me (I had this argument with one of my sons' teachers years ago, when she objected to the use of the word "yuck!" in the dialogue of a piece of creative writing).

And if I'm playing Scrabble/Scrabulous and trying to win, I'd be hard pressed to turn down the opportunity to play the f-word on a triple word score. After all, that would net me a minimum of 39 points... and it's in the dictionary.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Indulge a proud mother as I brag....

Yesterday my sons (aged 16 and 14) got an Xbox 360. "So what?" I hear you say. I'm glad you asked!

They had had a PS2 for some time, but decided between them that they wanted the Xbox instead (I raised my voice for a Wii, but got shouted down... sigh). Between them, they planned what they could sell (the PS2 and all the associated games for a start), how much that would net and how they would raise the balance. They shopped around for the best price they could get for the various items they wanted to sell and negotiated deals. They lived frugally so that they could contribute as much as possible from their allowance. They scrimped and saved the earnings from their paper rounds. My younger son even went without topping up the airtime for his phone, and has spent at least a month on an "incoming calls only" basis. They decided that they could make this their Christmas gift to each other, and added the money saved that way to the pot as well.

For several years (at least five), my elder son has been plying his trade as the family masseur (he has a natural skill that he has been honing over the years). The income from this enterprise has also been diverted to the Xbox fund over the past few months.

One particularly clever thing they did (in my - ahem - unbiased view) was to check the deals on the console at each of the shops in the centre, and to offset those against what each of those shops would give them for the pre-owned games that they hadn't already sold to friends. This was because the stores would give them vouchers for their games, rather than cash, so they would pretty much be tied in to performing both transactions at the same store.

Never once did they argue about it, in spite of the fact that they discussed it often and earnestly, at great length, over a period of several weeks. The fact that they were contributing unequal amounts was never an issue (since my elder son has a bigger paper round than my younger son, he earns more). Never once did they ask us for money. They didn't even ask us for advice, although they proudly kept us up to date with their progress and the mounting total in the tupperware container.

Yesterday, they finally reached the magic number. They went straight from school to the centre under their own steam. From there, they went home and set up the console. When I arrived home, they were hard at play (Halo 3, in case you're interested). Neither of them had done their chores, but I was so proud of them I left them to play. They had earned their reward and then some!

Every time I think about it, I think of yet another learning outcome from the whole exercise.

Tell me I don't have reason to be proud of my enterprising young men!

An apPEAling story

To counterbalance Friday silliness with a little gravitas...

I came across this today, courtesy of Drew Buddie. It focuses on breast cancer, which is an issue particularly close to my heart, since all three of my Dad's sisters had breast cancer... only one survived.

I had not encountered Susan Reynolds before, but it's a fascinating story in which frozen peas (of all things) loom large.

The strapline? We will not apPEAse cancer.

Edit: Doh! It would help if I included the link. Fixed now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More Friday silliness - a little ahead of schedule

Apparently this comes from the Washington Post, which runs an annual neologism competition, in which contestants suggest alternative meanings for existing words. At the risk of being labelled a coward, I shall err on the side of caution and cull the more risque ones from the list, but this post nevertheless carries a political incorrectness warning.

  • Coffee (n) The person upon whom one coughs
  • Flabbergasted (adj) Appalled at how much weight you have gained
  • Abdicate (v) To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach
  • Esplanade (v) To attempt an explanation while drunk
  • Negligent (adj) Describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown
  • Lymph (v) To walk with a lisp
  • Gargoyle (n) Olive favoured mouthwash
  • Flatulence (n) The emergency vehicle that picks you up after you have been run over by a steamroller
  • Balderdash (n) A rapidly receding hairline
  • Rectitude (adj) The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists
  • Pokemon (n) A Rastafarian proctologist
  • Oyster (n) A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms
  • Frisbeetarianism (n) The belief that, when you die, your spirit flies up onto the the roof and gets stuck there

I have to say that my favourite is "esplanade". As a person who never, under any circumstances, gets drunk (long story), I have been subjected to many earnest "esplanations" in my time that - tragically for "splaner" - I am able to remember the next day! If I'm ever down on my luck, I might start to charge for my silence!

A close second has got to be a tie between negligent (Cherie Blair, anyone?) and flatulence.

I invite you to come up with a few of your own - perhaps it will relieve the stress of the frantic pre-Christmas rush to "get it all done in time".

A little something I learned... that might save a life

I recently mentioned that my elder son had had something of a close shave with the heater in his room. I have subsequently learned something about the situation that will certainly change the way I manage heaters in the future and may serve to alert someone else out there.

First off, I discovered (after returning the heater to the store and declaring it faulty) that the problem was with the extension cable rather than the heater.

What you need to know about this cable is that it was one of those very long ones rolled around a reel - usually used outdoors. In fact, ours used to be used for our lawnmower. Since we no longer have a lawnmower (or a lawn, for that matter), we had begun to utilise it elsewhere, expecting that it would be particularly robust, having been intended for outdoor use.

Because the space in which it was being used required nowhere near the full 10 metre length most of the cable was wrapped around the reel, which was stowed away under a chest of drawers and this is apparently where the problem lay.

I have discovered from my stepfather that heaters draw a lot of current and should always be connected to uncoiled, untwisted cables. If not, you could wind up with the situation we had, in that the coiled cable becomes a heat coil, much like a rheostat, which then begins to melt the insulation and can cause a fire.

By the time I discovered the situation, the insulation had melted through, generating a great deal of toxic smoke, and the wires had begun to make contact. Fortunately, this shorted out the whole system, and I discovered it in time to prevent the situation from getting any worse.

If you're using any electric heaters in your home, office or classroom, please do a quick safety check, courtesy of my stepdad.

Quick tribute: My stepdad is one of those wonderful, salt of the earth, unschooled, blue collar people who has become a source of all sorts of wonderful, practical knowledge over the course of a lifetime. It was he who taught me how to service my first car so that I didn't get ripped off by unscrupulous mechanics who (research showed) thought female=ignorant and therefore charged more for their services. It used to cause much hilarity in our street, and it is one of my "claims to fame" that I was even the cause of an accident as a man was so stunned at the sight of working on her car on the front lawn that he drove into a tree. I never did develop the upper body strength to loosen the sump nut for oil changes, though!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

There goes the neighbourhood

Jacob Zuma has just won the race for leadership of the ANC in South Africa. To be honest, it was a bit of a devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea choice, but I think this victory represents a bit of a death blow for the country's future prospects. You can see his party political profile, or you can read up on some of the issues that have dogged him.

Oh dear. This is one of those situations where my greatest wish is to be proved wrong!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Formative assessment... BEFORE it's too late!

I was going to call this post RIP old friend. The reason will become clear in due course.

Imagine that you are a child in school. You think you are doing very well thank you at your favourite subject - for the sake of argument, let's say physics. No-one ever mentions that your performance is below par. And then comes the exam. You fail miserably and the teacher who is giving you your feedback tells you that there has been a general consensus among the staff that there have been cracks in your work for some time. They did ask the physics teacher to address the issue with you, but he never got that far. How do you feel?

Imagine that you are an employee in a workplace. You think you are doing your job very well thank you. No-one every mentions that your performance is below par. And then comes your appraisal. You are advised that there has been concern among management for some time that there have been cracks in your performance. They did ask your line manager to address the issue with you, but he never got that far. How do you feel?

Have you ever been in the situation where you have found out by chance that someone you cared for deeply died some time ago, but no-one thought to tell you. How do you feel?

Last night I was compelled to come to terms with the loss of a very dear friend. No-one died, though.

As I have said in many spaces, I have always been able to sing, and sing well. I have independent witness to this fact. I have been recorded, I have sung on television, I have performed live. For the past several years I have done little more than use my singing in service of my local church as a member and occasional leader of the worship team.

Last night I discovered, quite by chance, that there has been consensus among the leaders for some time that I have not only lost my ability to hold a tune, I have also lost the ability to tell when I am off key - something which is happening more and more often, apprently. They asked the team leader to address the issue with me, but he never got that far. How do I feel?

The word gutted comes to mind. I have lost something extremely precious to me - something I have always simply relied upon to be there (I cannot begin to describe the utter joy that singing has brought me throughout my life. As my mother always said: if Karyn's breathing, she's singing). Worse, no-one saw fit to tell me. I cringe to think of the torture that I have been inflicting on people week after week as I stepped confidently up to the microphone and spewed forth discord.

One way or another, we are all formative assessors. If you are aware of something in someone's life that needs addressing, whether it be professional, personal or educational, please, PLEASE discuss it with them. Today. Don't wait for someone else to do it. And especially, don't wait until the revelation is going to be utterly gutwrenching and humiliating. The longer you leave it, the worse it will be.

And especially avoid dumping the bad news in their lap on their birthday!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Zoom, you chase the day away

(With apologies to Fat Larry)

I'd be interested to hear if anyone else out there has experience of ZoomInfo. I stumbled across it while trying to track down an old colleague. The service claims to help one "be found on the web". Since the information it contained about me was scanty and outdated, I thought I'd sign up (it's free) and get it updated. Not that I feel I need help being found online!

I completed all the required details and then reached the sticking point: verification. The last screen asked me to select my preferred method of verfication from the list in order to prevent identity fraud. The "list" displayed one single possibility: my credit card details... together with assurances that they would not be abused. My response? Yeah right!

I have been the victim of credit card fraud/identity theft before, and I'm a little skittish about handing out my details - especially in a situation where no money is supposed to change hands.

I emailed them asking for an alternative method of verification. The reply, from a member of their technical support team, advised me that this was the only method of verification available:

To ensure that people are who they say they are, we must verify their identity, and an online credit card transaction is the safest and most effective method for us to minimize the possibility of mischief.
Once again they assured me that my details would not be used for any nefarious purposes (my words, not theirs) and (and this is the kicker) boasted that there was "no charge for this service".

My reply started as follows:
I don't intend to be difficult, but I don't see how you think that your insistence that you have no plans to misuse my credit card details should reassure me. After all, if you were planning to misuse my credit card details, you would hardly be likely to say so.
Am I being unreasonable?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday silliness

Okay - it's Friday. I went in for a minor "procedure" this morning, which I have decided means that they inflict enormous pain on you without the benefit of aneasthetic. So I in no mood to be sensible. Hence the following. Apologies to all you less "sad" people and/or more deprived mortals for whom Star Trek and/or Monty Python are unknown quantities.

As for myself, every word spoken and every visual image used is comfortably familiar. Trust me - it adds to the humour!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More perspective

Last night, I participated in a phone interview with Kristina Schneider for her Master's dissertation on blogging. Before the interview, she sent me her list of questions to help me focus my thinking.

During the course of the interview, I mentioned my ongoing concern for the fact that some people's voices are excluded from this space. I fear we are sometimes in danger of being somewhat self-congratulatory when we gather together in our electronic spaces and tackle the challenges that commonly face us. I wonder if we aren't just a little "holy huddle-ish" - choosing to ignore the challenges facing those who don't have the means to join us in this space (the video clip I included in yesterday's post reminds us how few people actually have internet access). I have niggling doubts at the wisdom of pushing the leading edge further and further forward while leaving the trailing edge ever further behind - especially since most of those with whom I come into contact are vocally opposed to the same model in relation to material wealth. Why then, does it make sense to adopt this model in terms of knowledge wealth? Are we/am I being hypocritical? Speaking in gravely sympathetic tones about those who endure deprivation, only to take every opportunity use the tools at our/my disposal to widen the gap between them and us/me?

Last night, I very nearly lost my elder son as the fan heater in his room burnt out and filled his room with noxious smoke. It just "so happened" that I opened his door to look in on him and discovered this situation. Since my husband is abroad, I had to battle alone to wake him and get him out of the room and then go back into the room to unplug everything and ensure that there was no further danger of the house burning down around my ears. Even that short period of exposure brought on an asthma attack for me, and I had no idea how long he had been breathing in that toxic smoke.

I took him outdoors to breathe the clean, cold air and, as he sat there, looking in sleepy confusion at me as I wrapped a second duvet around him, it dawned on me what had just very nearly happened and what might have been. It was as if his life flashed before my eyes, and I began to shake almost uncontrollably.

Talk about a dose of perspective! It could all have burnt for all I cared. My boys were safe. Of course, spending several hours in the A&E department (with both my boys, just in case) of the local hospital gave me plenty of time to stocktake, analyse and assimilate.

Anyone who knows me well will tell you what a learning geek I am. How rampantly and passionately I pursue learning and knowledge. How I grind my teeth in frustration when I lack the capacity to understand some new concept. But it takes something like this to remind us, as trite as it may sound that, in the final analysis, it's about people.

I told Kristina last night how I recently discovered that I have developed a bit of a reputation for being one who vociferously champions the cause of the learner in every project with which I am involved. When I finally got to my desk today, it was to find that last night's erm... little shake-up has served to renew my commitment to this perspective. So, to all those who find themselves working with me on one or the other project... you have been warned ;-)

Kristina asked me if my tendency to leap onto my ever-handy soapbox about the plight of the so-called third worlders was an extension of this attitude and I was forced to admit that it was not. I have been a learner. I am still a learner. I have empathy with the learner's perspective. I have lived in the third world. I have lived side-by-side with deprivation, but I have never been deprived... not in any real sense. My experience has for the most part been purely vicarious. In that context, I was one of the privileged few who had access to very sophisticated services (which I have since come to appreciate were superior to those on offer in much of the first world). So the best I can hope to do is to shine a spotlight of awareness onto the situation when the opportunity arises. To be the one who says "ahem" from time to time. I acknowledge in advance that I am likely to continue to do this - so my apologies (or maybe not) to those for whom this stance has worn a little thin.

I have a lot to be grateful for today!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A little perspective

Occasionally, I raise my ineffectual voice in this space for the third world.

Having spent the first 36 years of my life in Africa, I am deeply conscious of the plight of those who don't even have a frame of reference to understand let alone the means to participate in the conversations we have about learning.

Today someone posted this on my Facebook page. you may have seen it before, but at this particularly materialist, acquisitive time of the year, it is perhaps a timely reminder.

Beyond ROI

This is a subject I have touched on during the discussions around the recent Corporate Learning Trends and Innovations (CLTI2007) conference.

My mail at the office today included the December issue of inside learning technologies, which I gather is not yet available on line (have you signed up for the LT2008 exhibition and/or conference, yet?). The lead article by Donald H Taylor addresses the issue of the value of learning and ROI.

My gut feel on the subject of ROI is that it is just too difficult to quantify. There are just too many other variables that may impact the situation - the learner may read a book in his leisure time that profoundly influences his behaviour, or he might attend a life enrichment seminar , or hear a powerful sermon at church. He might meet a new love interest, or become a parent. All these things happen outside the workplace, but have the potential to impact profoundly on his workplace performance.

And the move towards performance support will do nothing to firm up those blurred lines, as we see learning becoming more and more seamlessly integrated with the day job.

To use an expression I have probably already turned into a cliche: how do you know where to position your ROI chisel so that you can hit it with the budget hammer?

Donald's article draws this rather wonderful comparison:

Does the IT manager ever feel obliged to justify their department through a ROI analysis of the value of each PC and the time spent maintaining it? Of course not.

The message from IT is simple: "If you want to run the business, you have to invest in IT. No IT, no infrastructure, no business. Of course, we can discuss costs and other details, but the role of the department is non-negotiable."
As I keep saying: you either believe in the value of L&D for your staff or you don't. End of. Either way, you'll find a way to make the numbers support your argument.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Edublog awards

The winners of the 2007 "eddies" have been announced. I would have liked to attend the online ceremony in Second Life, but it clashed with what little family time I have these days, so I had to wait to get the news.

I enjoy the fact that the nominations alert me to some blogs I had not previously encountered. I also enjoy the fact that at least one of the blogs I vote for usually comes through. This year one of my nominees won a category, too.

Not everyone likes the idea of adding an element of competition to the whole social media scene, and I respect that. There has got to space in the blogosphere for all shapes, sizes and persuasions. At the time of the conversation, I stated that I had no problem with it.

What I can safely say now that the whole thing is behind us is that I realised that I was speaking as one not in the running.

It's a really odd thing that I love competition... if I can win by my own efforts: sports, board games, quizzes. But I hate being at the mercy of other people's votes. Always have. I take it all far too personally. When I was 11, I was nominated for the position of house captain at my primary school, but I stood down, because the vote was by a show of hands and I couldn't face the possibility of no hands being raised for me.

Later, in my first year at college, I was asked to participate in the annual beauty contest. Quite apart from my instinctive objection to the whole concept of beauty pageants, I was afraid of being humiliated, so I refused.

Talk about your average insecurity!

You would think I had outgrown that by now. But I went through the same agonies when I was nominated for school governor (that time I was persuaded to stand and I was elected). I imagine that I would be the same if my blog were nominated. I am also fairly sure that I wouldn't feel free to write this post, if I were nominated but didn't garner any votes.

By what do we measure the success of a blog?

My dissertation (which I mention often, but have yet to start writing) focuses on how my use of social media has transformed my professional practice. When I read back over some of my early posts, just a little over two years ago, I am amazed at the extent to which many of my views have changed. To me, this is the measure of the impact of my entrance into the blogosphere. However, this is very subjective and qualitative. It would be nice to include an element of quantitative evidence, but I'm at a loss as to how to do that. Having identified my life as my PLE, I have made my learning journey so personal, so subjective that it can't realistically be measured by anyone other than me, and I'm not sure my own measure is an entirely reliable one!

Friday, December 07, 2007


I can't even imagine what went into acquiring this level of skill so young, but this has just made my Friday.

Thanks to Chris Sloan via Dean Shareski on Twitter. Some comments on Chris's post express doubt at the genuine-ness of this clip. It looks real enough to my inexpert eyes, and that'll do for me today. If you happen to know that it was faked, don't tell me about it, okay - it's not important enough to warrant bursting my little bubble!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Unexpected thumbs up

Today was "curriculum progress" day at our sons' school. My younger son and I attended meetings with four of his teachers to discuss his progress against expectations so far this academic year. These days are usually pretty fraught as one dashes from room to room, sometimes in different buildings, in order to make each appointment on time. If you have more than one child, it's even worse.

I got off fairly lightly today. When my sons brought the forms home, my older son said he didn't want to meet with any of his teachers. He said that he was in his final year of compulsory education, already in the countdown to exams. He knew what needed to be done to achieve his grades and he didn't think that a meeting with me and his teachers would have any impact on that.

I wrote as much on the form and returned it to the school, adding that I supported him in his recognition that it was his learning journey and that it was now up to him to "do the work (or not)". His teacher was apparently so impressed with this attitude that she read it to the class, declaring me a "legend" (don't be too impressed, the word is freely used these days!).

In respect of my younger son, however, there are still some mountains to climb and some battles to fight (such as two teachers blemishing the record of this over-diligent lad by writing in his report that his homework is "causing concern" when none has been set... and I know this, because the planner is online), hence the four meetings. On our rounds, we encountered several of my older son's friends, who asked where he was. When I explained that we had decided that he was now shouldering the responsibility himself, one child declared, "Wow! My Mom forces me to come to these things." I wasn't sure whether he meant it as praise or criticism.

Time will tell whether it was the right decision or not, but I was pleasantly surprised to have earned the teacher's support for it.

What's with all the extras?

With our elder son coming up to his GCSEs, we're turning our attention to 6th form options. Of course, he could stay at his current school, but he is underachieving fairly spectacularly there. Since the university he plans to attend is one of the most selective in the country, he is probably going to need a change of plan to attract their attention.

Last night we attended the open evening of a specialist science school in a nearby town. Unlike his current school, which is a comprehensive (no entry criteria), this school has a selection policy and kids have to qualify to get in. There are only 40 places available to those who wish to transfer in from other schools.

Judging by the attendance last night, competition is going to be fierce!

According to the information we were given last night, this school is one of the "top 50 schools in the country".

Today, I've been thinking about what that means. Are their students the happiest? The best educated? The most well-balanced? The best equipped to deal with life-after-school? I suspect it is based purely on their results and, since I question the validity of the assessment process, this places a question mark over the relevance of this achievement.

Sadly, though, the system is what it is and it is within the constraints of this system that my son is going to have to prove his worth to the university of his choice if he is to have the chance to follow a career in forensics (this is the legacy of CSI and its ilk - every second child now wants to study forensics, whereas 10 years ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of it).

He is too young to see how tough the adjustment to this school will be, should he be accepted. At his current school (unusually for the UK), there is no official uniform. At this school, the sixth form boys must wear suits to school every day. Last night, he was blissfully unaware of the fact that he stuck out like a sore thumb. There were many other kids in civvies, but none of the others was wearing his trousers below his butt, with his underwear on display. Nor did they wear T-shirts that informed the reader that the only reason the wearer had not yet made a pass at them was because "You ugly!"

At his current school, the teachers are known by their first names. At this school, it's Mr this and Dr that (I doubt there is a single PhD on the staff of his current school, but I saw at least one last night and am trying to decide whether this is a sign of anything in particular). At his current school, the stated ethos is one of equality for all (I have my doubts as the successful implementation of this approach, as I have mentioned before on this blog). At this school, the teachers are without question exalted beings. They expect the students to stand aside for them. My son complained to me that one of the teachers had shoulder-barged him. In fact, what had happened was a conflict of expectations: the teacher had expected my son to step aside to let him through, while my son was making his way from point A to point B via the shortest route.

None of the other kids left their parents in their wake and interviewed the teachers for themselves.

Standing back and watching this whole interplay, I realised that my son was not making a good impression. That he was coming across as brash and yobbish. In a one-to-one interview (which will form part of the selection process), he will fare very well, but he has clearly been influenced by the culture of his current school, and it hasn't all been to his benefit!

Listening to the feedback from teachers and students, it certainly seems that they promote a culture of independent learning and diligence. All the students emphasised the need for "further reading" and "reading around the topic". In amongst all the other bumpf, this was what I wanted to know about. It is this that my son does not do. He sails along on the bare minumum of effort. We were chatting to the mother of a boy who transferred to this school from my son's current school. He and my son have similar interests and similar strengths and weaknesses. She assured me that my son would become motivated to work very hard in the new environment. She told me about daytrips to Switzerland for significant events. About opportunities to assist in scientific research. About trips to universities to attend lectures.

So why is it that schools that impose such seemingly irrelevant and outdated constraints such as formalwear, formal forms of address, etc. produce such good results? And why is it that schools with a more liberal approach have such a high incidence of crime and poor performance? Where is the link and why does it exist at all? Surely these factors shouldn't have an impact on learning, and yet in the UK education system, it seems they do. Or is this a case of the Forer effect?

As we drove away, I asked him if he wanted to apply for a place. Unhesitatingly, he said he did. When I hinted at the difficulty he would have in adjusting to the restrictive environment, he said he thought it would be exactly what he needed. I felt as if a huge wave had just loomed up, and I was paddling my surfboard like mad. I realise we are either, by dint of enormous effort, going to ride this one to the shore, or we are going to get unceremoniously dumped and churned (if you've every surfed you know exactly what I'm talking about!). I don't feel as if I have enough left in me to put in the effort to ride that wave, but I also don't relish the thought of the buffeting that is the alternative.

... and we will have to go through this all over again in two years' time with our other son. Oy vey!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

What did you learn about learning in 2007?

This is the big question over at LCB this month. Originally, I had thought I'd give it a miss, since I couldn't name one specific thing that I had learnt about learning - it's all been fairly intangible.

Then I realised that, in fact, that's the whole point. That encapsulates what I keep trying to say about learning, so I thought I'd give it a go - but I doubt that it will be very coherent.

I can't pick out one thing that I have learned and put hard edges on it. Does this mean that I have learned nothing of significance? Far from it!

I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with hordes of people. Some of them have become, well... friends, I guess. Those relationships were already in place - they just moved forward this year. These interactions have contributed to my own personal development.

I have bumped up against people with opposing views to my own. Debating with them has firmed up some of the boundaries of my knowledge set, while moving others. I have even had the unenviable experience of being vilified in the discussion forum of an online publication.

I have encountered opposition at work, and had to defend my position. I have drawn pictures, waved my hands about and foamed at the mouth. I have champed at the bit. I have used every moment of downtime (and, for a while there, there was a lot of it) to learning about this business. I have given thought to my professional future. I have thought about where the learning industry is going and where I want to be.

I have attended lectures at university. I have researched assignments. I have spoken to people I might never otherwise have encountered. I have read material I almost certainly would not otherwise have read. All these things have added to the sum of my knowledge, and impacted on pre-existing knowledge.

I have attended conferences. I have sat through sessions which have set me a light and others where I wanted to stand up and shout, "What a load of claptrap!" (and still others which bored me silly). Both of the extremes stretched me (while the boring ones afforded me time to reflect, I guess).

I have tried innumerable times to explain to people what it is that I do. I'm getting better at it, but it still needs work. In explaining, I find that I think about learning and what I understand it to be.

Some of these situations have taken place online, some face to face. Some in a group, and some one-to-one. Sometimes the situation has been a specific learning event, other times the learning has been so embedded into a situation as to be indistinguishable from it.

I have been a learning professional of one sort or another for close to two decades now, and one thing that has become increasingly clear over this past year is that I don't deserve the title. I'm not sure anyone does. The more I learn, the more I realise what a learning amateur I am. Perhaps that is my "one thing," although even that realisation didn't spring into existence fully formed during the space between 1 January 2007 and now.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Note to Samaritans: the rules are changing

Last night, the police (finally) came around to get a statement from my son regarding Tuesday's incident. At the end of the interview, the policeman advised my son to refrain from offering or giving help to people in the street - "no good deed goes unpunished."

Ugh. When I think how hard we have worked to teach our children to be neighbourly!

When I was in my teens, my mother encountered a man staggering down the high street of the city with a knife protruding from his back, bleeding copiously. He was pleading for help from passersby, but people were giving him a wide berth. My mother drove him to the hospital.

Shortly after we were married, my husband and I were awakened by loud banging on the door of our flat. At the door stood a bleeding man who said he had been stabbed. My husband drove him to the hospital.

If my children take to heart the advice they are now being given, such people will just bleed to death. What worries me most is the thought: what if it isn't one of my children who encounters such a person? What if the person is one of my children?

When I contrast the willingness of my online communities to help one another academically, emotionally, spiritually, informationally, with this sad state of affairs in respect of physical or material help within our physical communities... well, it breaks my heart.