Friday, January 29, 2010

BOGOL and such

The UK is tentatively sticking its head out from under the recession, so they tell us. The figures show a miniscule growth in the economy during the last three months of 2009. But then, as my 18 year old son pointed out, those are not really reliable data, since we're looking at the period around Christmas, after all.

Some news reports have spoken of slowing down of the increase in the unemployment levels. I haven't found any online articles to confirm this, yet. It is some comfort if it's true, but we are all looking for a decrease in the unemployment levels.

So, most of us are some way from optimistic.

This is reflected by the fact that TV advertising at the moment includes several items aimed at saving money. And, of course, all the major supermarkets are out there proving to us that they have our best interests at heart.

Here is just a random selection of the things that have made a blip on my radar in the last week:

  • Asda is offering blankets with sleeves to reduce heating bills. So you can snuggle up on the couch instead of turning up the heating. I'm not sure why you can't just wear a sweater or use a normal blanket. We do... always have done. My husband, my snuggly blanket and the rugby on a Saturday afternoon. Bliss.
  • Tesco has changed their BOGOF (buy one, get one free) offer to BOGOL (buy one, get one later) in an attempt to reduce waste. Let's face it, if you only need one cabbage but take an extra one, because it's free, the second one is likely to go off before you come to use it. So now, instead of a free cabbage, you get a voucher entitling you to a free cabbage when you need it.
  • Sainsbury is trying to encourage us to keep and use our leftovers, by handing out little plastic lunch box thingies at the cash points with every purchase.
It puts me in mind of 'Make do and Mend'.

I have to say that, as gestures go, Tesco's impresses me the most. But then, perhaps the others have other ideas that haven't made it onto my radar, yet.

Let's hope that we have turned the corner and that things start to improve soon.

A body of evidence

So I've been on a diet for a few months now, having returned to the sort of exercise regime I prefer once my major project had been submitted. I've been very good about not leaping onto the scales every day, but I have had a little weekly weigh-in and measure up to keep track of my progress (7.6kgs or 16.7lbs to date). A little performance review, if you like.

Today, I poked my scale with my toe to activate it.
I changed the battery.
I gave it a little shake.
I swore at it.
I engaged in a little percussive maintenance (i.e. I smacked it a few times).

I went out and bought a new one.

Now I just knew this would happen: the new one tells me I weigh .8kg more than I did last Friday. I know that I don't, because I lost another 4cm around my waist in the last fortnight, and I've outshrunk (well, what's the opposite of outgrown, then?) trousers I bought in December. It's an anomaly of the way scales work - no two ever seem to tell the same story, so you just pick one and stick with it, making sure the trend is in the right direction. When you have to change horses in the middle of the race, there's bound to be a bit of teething trouble.

Ah, but you see, from now on, my scale will not just weigh me, it will keep track of my weight. It will also keep track of my husband's, our sons' (should they care) and up to 6 other people.

Not only this: the scale blithely told me this morning what my body fat percentage is (in the healthy range), what my total body water percentage is (healthy), what my muscle mass is (no guidance given) and what my BMI is (still in the overweight range - go figure).

So, I have a ton of metrics to work with.

All this makes me think of workplace learning and development (plus ca change!). Here we have this learning department getting on with doing the job. Then we decide to introduce new technology (while, in the case of my scale it was because the old technology was broken, this is not always the case in the world of L&D). While we get used to the new technology, there will be glitches and setbacks. But of course, the powers that be will be won over by the promise of metrics. You will be able to see exactly who's done what, when and how well. Each user's every move will be recorded and reported on.


Now I'm not saying we should go back to a bygone era. I'd be among the last to suggest that. What I am saying is that we get a little happy with our tracking and our metrics. Sometimes we forget that to deliver the goodies on these, some poor blighter is going to have to generate a report, create a few charts.... and the explain what the significance of it all is.

In my case, things are working as they should when I get back into my Levi's.

In the case of a business, things are working as they should, when the business is performing as it should.


Another one for the history teachers and history geeks

The British Library has produced another interesting resource. This time it's an interactive timeline. It starts with the signing of the Magna Carta in the 1210s. I'm not sure why they haven't gone further back than that.

You have the option to select what sort of events you're interested in learning about. So, for example, you can look at the core, or central timeline. Or you can explore politics, power and rebellion; art and literature; sacred texts; everyday life or medicine, science and technology. The container for the timeline options is not full, so one assumes they plan to add more at some point.

Once you have selected your timeline, you can scroll left and right through the events listed, and select one of your choosing. In the medicine, science and technology timeline, for example, I chose an event dated c. 1300 called 'examining urine'. There is a brief blurb and an image. The blurb ends with the library's shelfmark, while the there is an option on the image to zoom in. There is also a link to a page about medieval times on the library's website.

One option I found very interesting was being able to draw comparisons between key events in two of the timelines. For example, I chose literature, art and entertainment, and compared it with medicine, science and technology. This is a great way to see how developments in one field influenced another. At the moment, I am playing with medicine, science and technology vs everyday life. Very interesting.

Best of all, you can create your own timeline. Unlike the historical objects database I posted about a few days ago, you can't add your own items to the list. But you can 'favourite' objects from any of the timelines to create a customised one of your own.

One small point worth mentioning, there are a few options to manage the display - 2D and 3D, a choice of four backgrounds, and the option to view full screen.

There is such a wealth of exciting material out there at the moment, that I can't decide whether it would make being a teacher more interesting or more frustrating. More interesting because it provides a wealth of support materials to bring into the classroom, or more frustrating because the national curriculum restricts the extent to which one can explore such resources with students.

I certainly intend to introduce my sons to the timeline, particularly the younger one who, as I have mentioned before, is about to start studying history with the disadvantage of no prior exposure to the subject (other than endless museum trips with his geeky parents, that is!).

Monday, January 25, 2010

I made history. And so can you.

The BBC's Radio 4 and the British Museum have joined forces on a series called 'The History of the World in 100 Objects".

What's really nifty about it, is that you can add your own objects to it. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may recognise the object I added, since it has appeared here before.

I really like the folksy, common man feel of this project.

Of course, while the radio series is in 100 parts, the website is going to wind up with a whole lot more than 100 objects on it. This got me to thinking... if I were to name 100 objects that summed up my perception of the history of the world, what would make that list? The wheel would definitely have to be there, of course, as would the internal combustion engine. But then what about the intangibles that have changed history so much more than any object. Does fire count, for example? And what about the Internet? It's quite an interesting challenge.

Then I thought, if I were to personalise that project and make it my life (thus far) in 100 objects... what would make that list, then? My first car. My wedding ring. My Bible. A cryptic crossword puzzle. My laptop. Photos of my kids. That sort of thing. Would I be allowed to include a geographical feature, like Table Mountain?

And what if someone were to take on such a project after my death? What 98 objects would they place between my cradle and my grave? How different would those two lists look?

My mind is churning with this idea, now, and for a fleeting moment, I wished I were a history teacher to set my students the task of creating a history of their own family in 100 objects... but it was just a moment before I remembered that the national curriculum would put paid to any such ideas.

What about you? Is it an idea that has appeal for you? What sort of objects would make your list?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Another learning discovery: The Gates Notes

Just moments ago, my husband sent me a link to The Gates Notes. In case, like me, your immediate reaction is to wonder how you managed to miss that, fret not - I gather it only went live yesterday.

One huge advantage of being obscenely rich is that Bill Gates can dedicate a great deal of time to learning whatever he likes. Oh for the freedom to do that! The geek in me is green with envy. However, the fact that he's out there doing it and then sharing it on his site, means that I can learn vicariously from his experiences.

As a learning geek professional, my interest is particularly piqued by this post on learning and can't wait to get started on watching the lectures he mentions, simply to feed my rampant curiosity about anything and everything.

It also has more specific relevance to me. My younger son is bravely planning to take history for sixth form without ever having studied it before. Perhaps the Teaching Company Gates so highly recommends will prove to be a way that we can give him a grounding so that he doesn't start the course at a total disadvantage. The down side is the price tags on their materials for a mere mortal with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Ho hum, was it Benjamin Franklin who said: "If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest."

Learning opps to share as a family

Yesterday, for the first time in ages, I had a long car journey to make, with which, in my geeky little world, comes the opportunity to listen to several hours of BBC Radio 4. In the space of yesterday's journey, I discovered three learning opportunities to share with my family.

The first of these is 1001 Inventions. A travelling exhibition (currently at the Science Museum in London) of discoveries made by men and women in Muslim civilisation during the period in which Europe was experiencing it's 'dark ages'. It seems it wasn't dark all over the world. The exhibition opened yesterday and runs until 25 April. Like the rest of the Science Museum and most British museums, it's free. We plan to visit soon.

Just listening to an interview with one of the people involved in the exhibition, I learned something. Did you know that algebra originates in the Arabic world and that the word comes from 'al-jabr' which means balance, reunion and reconciliation?

The second is a Radio 4 series called The History of the World in 100 Objects, but I want to talk about that in greater depth, so will do a separate post on that.

The third is a three-part BBC 4 (a television channel, not to be confused with the aforementioned radio station) series that started last night called Chemistry: A Volatile History. This series charts the discovery of the elements in our modern periodic table. We watched the first episode as a family and were riveted. The producers have included loads of practical demonstrations that make the programme appealing to viewers with shorter attention spans (or lower tolerance for anything that it isn't a sitcom), and they've managed to pitch it at a level that will work for a wide range of people.

With the benefit of hindsight, the existence of some elements seems patently obvious, and my younger son was amused that serious minded researchers once believed in the existence of phlostigon. Since he is planning to study chemistry when he starts his A levels in September, the programme was perfectly timed for him.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Choosing the future

I attended an ELESIG symposium today (major downside: no connectivity in the venue) at which Richard Sandford delivered a presentation based on Futurelabs' research into possible future scenarios.

He reminded us of something I think we would all do well to remember... and to remind others about: the nature of the future isn't a foregone conclusion. Neither is it up to the ubiquitous-yet-mysterious 'them' to shape it. We will have (and already do have) a role to play in what the future looks like. If we think things are headed in a direction we're not happy with, we need to be lobbying for and trying to bring about a different sort of future.

Now that may all seem a bit 'well duh', but...

It also occurs to me that the education curriculum implies that we have identified what the future is going to look like, simply by virtue of the preparation we're providing. In preparing school-going children for one model of the future, do we not run the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy? I mean, if the entire cohort of school-going children within a nation is being prepared for one version of the future and not being encouraged to entertain other possibilities, will they not move inexorably toward that future? Should we not be tasking them with imagining the future of their choice and figuring out what they need to do in order to try to ensure that that model becomes a reality?

If we're going to be preparing kids for just one future and, in so doing, bringing that future into being, we'd better be damned sure it's one we all want!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Charging the iPhone

So there I was, on the train to London, when my iPhone died on me. Not in any permanent sense, you understand. Just in that all too frequent battery-needs-charging kind of way. The evening before, there had seemed to be a fair amount of charge left in the battery so I had made the mistake of not plugging it in. I had made the even worse mistake of leaving the house without my charger. All iPhone users know that you simply don't do this. iPhones chomp through their battery life at a notorious rate!

As it turned out, it would have been preferable if my phone had not chosen that moment to die on me because, shortly after the trained pulled out of the station, the convenor of the meeting to which I was headed tried to phone me to tell me it had been cancelled due to the weather. While it was too late to save myself the cost of the ticket, I could have got off at the next station and come back home, saving myself a lot of bother. London is a place I only visit out of necessity - when that necessity is removed, so is all desire to head towards the Big Smoke. As it was, I only learned of the cancellation when I arrived at the venue covered in a light dusting of snow with ice blocks for feet.

In the absence of my charger cable, I had popped into a few places on St Pancras station, looking for one of those one-off battery doodads that you plug into your phone to give you a DC power supply. No-one had them. Sod's law. At one stage they were everywhere.

I did find one option at Vodafone. They have a tower of coin operated charging bays in little lockers. They work pretty much like a parking meter. You plug in your phone, pay your money, lock the box and go and amuse yourself for half an hour (or whatever). Sadly, my phone wasn't having any of that, and the battery was as flat when I returned as it had been when I left. They refunded me my £1 (which was the cost of a half hour's charge time) without even being asked.

But perhaps it would have been better if I had had one of these two things for charging up the iPhone, as reviewed in PC magazine (and drawn to my attention by my sleep-in technical support man). I love the description of the solar charger as being "as much use a cat flap on a submarine in Britain’s current climate". Perhaps I won't dash out and buy one of those, then! Especially at that price tag. The Dexim P-Flip, on the other hand, has promise. I might have to explore that.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Tactile books for visually impaired pre-readers

I am bursting with pride right now. My friend Lynette Rudman (who has been featured once before in this blog) has been honoured in an international competition for her tactile books.

Some years ago, a blind child enrolled at Lynette's nursery school. Lynette quickly discovered that were no picture books aimed at such a child. Until a blind child learned braille, they were restricted to a vicarious enjoyment of books. She decided to fix this, and set about creating a series of tactile books called 'I read with my hands'.

The books are handmade by Lynette and her faithful team.

On impulse, Lynette entered one her books into the 2009 Typhlo and Tactus competition... and won!

If you work with any visually impaired littlies or have visually impaired children of your own, you might be interested in Lynette's books.

Well done, Zinky. Proud of you, girl!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Knowing your place

Sort of related to my musings on class, I had a minor epiphany (if that isn't an oxymoron) during my recent visit to South Africa.

My sister was talking about a singer in her church and I asked, "You mean Irene who sang with me that time?" to which my mother instantly responded, "I think you mean you sang with her!"

Now Irene is a rather prominent figure in the city's music scene, it is true. But, many years ago, she and I had rehearsed together for an opera. As it happened, because of some or other problem with the venue, the opera never took place. But she was to have played Gretel, while I sang the role of Hansel. As far as I can tell, those are the two title roles of the opera, and Gretel is as much singing with Hansel as the reverse. But my mother had a very Calvinistic upbringing, and was discouraged from anything approaching vanity or thinking too highly of oneself. As a consequence, she has tended to have this knee jerk reaction whenever one of us has appeared to be getting 'above ourselves'.

I didn't even notice it on a conscious level until that moment, but numerous other little events came flooding back to my memory. Times when she refused to accept that I had said, done or thought of a certain thing all on my own, insisting that I must have had help. Times when I was discouraged from being too pleased with myself for some or other achievement. Times when my achievements were put down to some or other coincidence or fluke.

When I described the adoptive parents I had chosen for my daughter as a radiographer and an architect, she mused that they were obviously far more intelligent than the biological father or myself, and wondered if it was a wise placement.

Now she doesn't do it on purpose, and my mother is inordinately proud of me and my achievements, but this is how she has reacted all our lives. And I wondered if this explained the whole impostor syndrome thing.

I share this story because - whether you're a teacher, a parent or both - I want to encourage you not to place limits on your kids' expectations of themselves, or their ambitions. So what if they're unrealistic? Let them dream big. Let them believe that they can achieve greatness. Who are you to decide that they can't?

If you think about the phrase 'being put in your place', who empowered that person to decide what your place is, anyway? Surely that's not a given.

Let's not put them in their place. Let's try to help them reach the place they're aiming for.

Why not?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

On this class thing

I was having an exchange with Donald Clark on Facebook today that got my brain whirring on the subject of class.

Anyone who knows Donald will know that he detests what he calls 'middle class snobbery'. I guess I don't understand the class thing too well, because I can't for the life of me figure out what a 'middle class' person would have to be snobbish about.

I am told time and again that the whole class thing is dead, over, forgotten, past history, yadda yadda. But it comes up so often in conversation that this is quite obviously not the case. And I remain convinced that part of the reason we have not readily been absorbed into English culture is that we don't fit neatly into any of the class categories.

If I were pressed, I would probably say that:

  • Working class people are people who work with their hands. Largely 'blue collar' jobs. But is - for example - a nurse or a policeman a blue collar worker? I have no idea.
  • A middle class person tends to be educated beyond high school and works in a 'white collar' job. But very few people wear 'white collar' type attire to the office any more - it's all jeans and polo shirts, these days.
  • Do we still even have a ruling class? Would that be the titled people, even though they definitely don't rule us any more? The mink-and-manure set, even though so many of them are all title and no money?
Who knows? And where does that leave people with no job at all? The idle rich and the idle poor. Trust fund beneficiaries and lifelong benefit (dole) recipients. The hackneyed cliche is that the working class doesn't work, middle class isn't in the middle and the ruling class doesn't rule.

I suspect each person formulates their own boundaries to fit themselves in where they feel they belong.

My husband and I both have a university education. Mine is to postgraduate level. We own a large-ish house. Our children will both almost certainly go to university. Are we middle class?

But what about our heritage? How much does that count?

My husband's parents were both indisputably 'working class' and of 'working class' stock. Blue collar workers who took pride in an honest day's work. His maternal grandfather earned his keep with a little fishing boat, as did many people on the island. My husband's university graduation was a red letter event in the history of the family. To this day, my husband treasures his friendships with men who work diligently with their hands. I think they remind him of his late Dad. So is he working class?

My own parents were office workers. My grandparents consisted of a shop-assistant-turned-librarian, two teachers and a civil servant. Does that constitute middle class? Lower middle class? How many strata of middle class are there? Does it matter?

How far back do we go? Do we go back to my titled ancestor (Earl or Lord Grenville or Granville or something) who disowned his daughter for her dalliance with a hired hand, and packed them both off to South Africa with a financial settlement, on the understanding that they never darkened his door again? How very Thorn Birds! Or how about the branch of my family that glories in the surname Bastard, being the descendants of some or other illegitimate off-spring of some or other king or noble or something. Or how about my loony ancestor, the self-styled Emperor of San Francisco (note: this account differs quite significantly from the hard copy accounts I have seen - it is far more flattering of Norton I!). Does this make me ruling class?

When we first moved to the UK a decade or so ago, we deliberately chose a 'working class' village school for our children, believing they would be among salt of the earth people. Ha! On every hand we were accused of thinking ourselves better than other families. And yet we never consciously did anything to give that impression. We found ourselves looked down upon by what I assume were middle class people, because we weren't posh enough or rich enough or something enough. And the only time I met a titled person, I caused outrage among my colleagues at the college by treating him as I would anyone else, inviting him to join me in the kitchen as I made him a mug (a mug, mind you!) of tea. To give him his due, Lord Mayhew (for lo, 'twas he!) was completely unfazed and chatted away to me as if he had known me all his life.

So no. I haven't quite got this class thing sorted. And in a way, I hope I never do. I'd rather you took me on merit, and I hope you won't mind if I do the same. Whoever you or your ancestors may be.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Victim culture

Continuing (after a fashion) my theme on air travel, this article in Time struck a chord with me. We the people rock.

There is a limit to what the state can do in terms of an individual's personal safety. To protect people completely is to disempower them. Surely I have not yet lost the right to make stupid choices and endanger my own hide in so doing? Surely when said hide suffers damage, I have to deal with the consequences of my own actions, take a big girl pill and suck it up?

I'm more than a little tired of attempts to legislate against all potential sources of harm.

People are wonderfully creative, resourceful and imbued with a survival instinct and a sense of self-preservation that is astonishing to behold. Read the article. I mean... go us. Really.

In a weird way, the article reflects where I am trying to go in terms of organisational learning provision. We need to stop looking on ourselves as having the answers. We need to acknowledge that 'the people' are not something other than us. That we are, in fact, all the people. That people have skills and abilities that they are not getting to use because we are so busy trying to teach them something. Sometimes we need to let them get on with the job and, when we do, we will find ourselves astonished by how much they can achieve without a single intervention from us.

Perhaps we just need to get over ourselves.

Can we agree to find new ways to empower people to 'do' this year, instead of being so flipping focused on what we want them to 'learn'? Let's stop throttling the life, the zest and the uniqueness out of people by shoving yet another learning solution down their throats, huh?

Fear of flying

Well, well! So it's 2010. I have been away for much of December, visiting family in South Africa, with no access to the Internet, which was very difficult. I hope you have had a wonderful festive season and that 2010 brings you all manner of good things.

One of the necessities of visiting family in far flung places is air travel. I hate flying. The merest hint of turbulence, and I become convinced that I am about to experience a plane crash first hand. The day before my return journey, my 'sensitive' stepfather regaled me with the story of a flight from Dubai to Durban that, he claimed, pretty much fell out of the sky. Charming. He was adamant that he was being helpful, because, as he pointed out, no-one actually died.

The thing is, I'm not scared of death. I just want the bit between being alive and being dead to be pain and terror free. So those people may have escaped death, but they all experienced something really scary. I don't do scary. I don't even go on fairground rides and I'm pretty much scared rigid on a ski-lift or cable car.

As luck would have it, the second - and by far the longest - leg of my return journey was pretty much turbulent all the way. After about an hour and a half of smooth flying, we encountered 'mild turbulence'. This lasted for about five hours. Then we had the joy of 'severe turbulence' the rest of the way to Paris.

I had been a nervous wreck during the mild bit. I lost the plot during the severe bit.

Several people near me were being sick. This was unfortunate, since Air France had neglected to provide us with barf bags. I managed not to be sick. I did not, however, manage to hold together any other shreds of my dignity. In my defence, there were several others who were moaning in fear, too!

I have been flying since I was a small child. From the age of 6, I flew with my 2 year old sister to visit our grandparents, and later to visit our father. We flew, if you can believe it, as unaccompanied minors, and there was no special provision for us the way there is these days. We were expected to sort ourselves out. I was the older child and therefore the target of my sister's expressions of fear and uncertainty. I have no doubt that this contributed to my current attitude towards flying.

On one of our flights, we were delayed on the runway in Johannesburg for an hour and a half before finally being cleared for take off. Because of the lateness of our eventual take off, I fell asleep. Unexpected turbulence threw me from my seat (we used to keep our seatbelts unbuckled in those days) and I woke up as I was making the express journey down the aisle. The pilot announced that the conditions made it too dangerous to land at our destination. Instead, we would fly to Port Elizabeth, where we would spend the night in a hotel, and be flown back the next day. My sister went ballistic. "My Mommy is waiting for me, down there! She will think I'm dead!" The cabin crew tried to assure her that her Mommy would be informed, but she was having none of it. We had no telephone at home and there was no other way to contact her Mommy. To this day, part of me believes that that brave pilot put that plane down in East London in order to shut my sister up!

Be all this as it may, I have decided that this is my year to overcome my fear of flying. So I have enrolled on an online programme. Another aspect of my lifelong, lifewide learning journey. I am fairly sure that fear will be diminished by knowledge and understanding. At least, this is what I hope. Thus far, they haven't told me anything I didn't already know, so we aren't winning, yet! Watch this space!