Tag Archives: education

Respect

15 Sep

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I had an interesting conversation with a fellow guest at a friend’s 50th birthday party/20th anniversary celebration this weekend. We were making polite small talk when I noticed a rather spare, yet beautiful silver ring on her finger. As she talked about it she revealed that this was one of the few jewels she had left following a recent burglary. She threw her chin up jauntily and remarked “It is funny what one values, it was only stuff after all”. I liked the cut of her jib.

I responded by saying that the most valuable things I possessed were the memories of surprising things people had said to me.

To explain, I relayed a memory of my first teaching practise  in a school in a rather deprived area of Gateshead in 1990.

I had been tasked with teaching ‘the skeleton’ to a class of 12 year olds. A keen student, I brought my first wife’s real human skeleton to school to show my class, allowing them to assemble it respectfully from it’s box on a laboratory bench. The school technician had also brought out a 1/5th scale mounted model of a human skeleton for us to compare. I and the pupils loved the experience, they were attentive, respectful and full of curiosity.

A few weeks later, just before I was due to leave, a lad from this class came up to me at the beginning of the lesson and said:

“Sir, can we see the Ethiopian again?”

I was a bit nonplussed, but soon realised that he meant, the 5th size model skeleton.

Undernourished.

The boy himself was underweight, and under sized for his age as many of his class mates were. His mum could not afford a uniform shirt AND a pullover, so she had sewn a shirt collar into a pullover. To my mind, the thinking of this boy showed true compassion, and deep thinking. It wasn’t long since the disastrous famine of Ethiopia 1983 – 1985 with shocking scenes of human suffering filling our television screens.

I still remember his Geordie lilt, his serious face, and the blinding realisation that teaching was a two way educational transaction. He had changed me from a student of teaching to a student of education.

Soon afterwards, in my first teaching job in the Tyne Valley, I was gifted another treasure.

There was a boy in a particular class, who, at 15, was a complete pain in the arse. My established colleagues told me he was unteachable. This coupled with the fact that he was in my class with his non-identical twin sister – a bottom science set – meant that they were able to torpedo all of my lessons. He was disruptive to the point of anarchy and, in the end, in desperation I asked him to stay behind at the end of the lesson. I decided to sanction him with a homework essay entitled “The Symmetry of Nature”.

He looked at me askance, picked up the paper and next morning returned this pearl:

‘The Symmetry of Nature is where pets go when they are dead’

Straight faced, I congratulated him on a fine essay and said no more. When he had left me alone in my lab I burst out laughing. From then on we got along fine, and the class became cooperative.

His poetic gift to me – not to take myself, or my role to seriously, and just because I was standing at the front of the class did not make me the top dog.

Courage, insight and humour. Priceless treasures all, are not innate, they are gifts bestowed by those who have experience, but only to those who show respect to their teachers.

The picture shows me aged 4 at my first school in Takoradi, Ghana 1962 (I am second from left, back row). My first teacher (centre front) told me I should be an artist. Respect.

Prayer

8 Feb

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The other day I was asked to tutor a young muslim woman in science by her father, in order that she might achieve her career ambition of becoming a Doctor. A bright young person, she and I discussed the best way to proceed at Tea with Percie my wife’s tea shop on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. I wanted to understand how I might help her by discovering the way in which she herself learned and understood concepts and, in particular, how she had been taught to date.

It is a very long time since I have done this and I was apprehensive – I did not want to fail them.

I am not a great believer in didacticism, rather, I prefer the Socratic method. Tutor and pupil create a dialogue in which mutual respect allows trust and exchange to develop in order to foster imaginative leaps and insight in the pupil’s mind. It can be a challenging way to teach for both parties: the tutor must be prepared to listen very carefully to a student’s responses, and the student must be encouraged to give precise answers. There is no room for woolly thinking, pat answers, or obfuscation.

There is also no ‘right’ answer in these exchanges, because both parties are moving towards building a model of a (scientific) concept.

Too many of us are happy to be spoon fed by people not qualified to do other than to dispense facts. Thus, the first thing I did was to invite her to check my credentials. It is not a good idea in my book to put any faith in the words of someone who has no form. Googling P.M.H.Littlewood, she discovered the scientific papers I have published on neuroscience, centipede biology, behaviour, neuroanatomy and physiology. I counselled her of the need for skepticism in the pursuit of knowledge together. Her dad, acted as chaperone over a pot of tea. An excellent arrangement for both of us as it made her feel safe. My wife Clare, my psychological chaperone, made me feel safe to use the full extent of my intellect without risking my own ‘fall-out’ (depression usually).

alhazen Al Hazen demonstrating a pin hole camera.

I had given her father some homework for her the previous week when he and I discussed terms. I had asked her to investigate Al Hazen, the 11th Century philosopher who is rightly dubbed the ‘Father of Modern Optics’ from his treatise on light. He was one of the first scholars to pursue what we now think of as the ‘Scientific Method’. My new pupil had identified this achievement and recognised that Al Hazen had also debunked Ptolemy’s ‘Extromission’ theory of vision – that we see by emitting rays, hypothesising and demonstrating by experiment that rays of light enter our eyes (Intromission). I chose Al hazen as a fine example of a polythmath, and a muslim scientist/role model to boot. I thought that my tutee might appreciate this as she is, herself a devout muslim.

I was delighted that she had grasped the opportunity as she told me all about the man who torpedoed Ptolemy. Al Hazen had used practical and thought experiments to postulate that we ‘see’ by receiving light into our eyes, not by beaming light rays out of our heads onto objects. A good philosophical starting point for any student.

I gave her a hand written summary of the ‘scientific method’ on a scrap of paper as a reward, and we proceeded to split light with a prism. She immediately pulled out her note book to write.

I said “Please put it away, it will only hinder you, you can make notes in your own time if it helps” – I wanted her to exercise her young brain to make its own connections and memories unfettered by slavish wrote recording.

As we progressed more deeply into discussing the nature of light she said “I don’t really like how all these subjects are separate, they don’t seem to be connected” showing me a glossy science revision text book. “Well, everything is connected”, I said, “but it is easier for teachers to dole science lessons out in spoonfuls when faced with a large class of students – who are not really interested. What bit of science do you particularly not get?”

“Chemistry” she said “bonding in particular”

“To ‘get’ this you need a model” I said “Because it is impossible to see, unlike the rainbow exiting the prism, which gave us a clue to the make up of white light”

“If you think of the atoms of a metal, all lined up like the congregation of the mosque, all facing Mecca and the Imam, then the prayers of the Imam are the electrons that hold the people (atoms) together” I suggested.

Electrons as prayer from the Imam, she loved this. Her dad had initially bridled when I mentioned the Mosque, but he liked it too.

“I’m sure you could think of your own analogy to describe when electrons are shared – as in covalent bonding, or where atoms with opposites charges stick together as in ionic bonding?

I chucked a sugar cube into water and some salt to get her thinking. “Food for thought, and to help you – have a fresh look at the periodic table – Mendeleev has given you a rather elegant menu of ‘stuff’, which we might consider in the light of what you have now discovered…”

Arabic teaching, learning and literature is vast and underpins many ‘Western’ concepts. Muslim tradition places great emphasis on logic, writing and memory – but imagery is eschewed in their teaching. Western learning is riddled with visual analogy based upon natural forms. I believe that powerful understanding can emerge in the exchange. Perhaps in these troubled times our prayer should be to seek the understanding of our children.

أول الشجرة بذرة
“A tree begins with a seed.”

Solo

25 Aug

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There are a crucial moments in life when we have to move from safety into danger in order that we may learn and grow. It was a brave mother (Helen Roach) who not only let her son, Adam, learn how to use a carving knife safely, but also, most generously, she sent me these photographs of the moment I let him take the tool and carve on his own. The intense look of concentration on his face and the way he folds himself around the work when he is flying solo is worth all the trepidation of tutor and parent.

Many years ago I re-trained to teach science at secondary level. It was clear to me that I could no longer rely on temporary contracts as a postdoctoral research fellow in Zoology to pay the mortgage and support my small family. I studied for a year at Durham University to gain a professional teaching qualification and thoroughly enjoyed the transition from laboratory research to classroom. What I loved the most was the way in which my teaching was reflected back to me by my students. In my final dissertation I invented the principle of the “Law of Convergence of Purpose” after a particularly stressful teaching practise field trip with a bunch of 14 year olds.

Their teacher had agreed to my taking them out to a woodland to get some hands on ecology experience: food chains, food webs, habitats – that sort of thing. Unfortunately the school only had a mini-bus capable of transporting 15 students and the class size was 28. This meant that the teacher had to drive me to the site, drop me off with half the class, and whizz back to school for the rest of them. These were the days before risk assessments.

He duly dropped me off with my share of expectant teenagers and drove off. With all the sampling equipment still in the van.

As the dust cloud settled, and realising I had better extemporise, I said the fateful words “Let’s be off then!”

They were. To all points of the compass, at high speed, yelling and whooping with the joy of liberation.

I was left with one student, a girl who looked up at me with one eyebrow raised and said “Will you get the sack then?”

A few seconds later I heard a commotion in the depths of the wood and with a sinking heart approached a group staring down into a deep muddy ditch. At the bottom was a boy stuck up to his knees in mud. “I don’t want to know what happened here” I said fatuously, and hauled the young man out of his predicament. He was missing a trainer, so I took my lunch out of its snappy bag and gave him a cheese flavoured overshoe as I waded in and retrieved his mud caked shoe. I had to write a letter of apology to his mother and reimburse the family for the damaged trainer. Needless to say the field trip was not a success.

Lesson one: language is the key

A few days later whilst on dinner duty in the school yard I witnessed a violent scuffle between two big fifteen year old lads. As I stepped in to separate me I was hauled back by a big meaty hand clamped on my jacket shoulder:

“Leave them to it lad” said the Head of Design Technology with a fag clamped between his teeth

“But fighting is against school policy!” I said indignantly

“They are not fighting lad, they are cuddling. They get very little physical affection in these parts, its their way of expressing affection”

Lesson two: things are rarely as they seem.

A friend of mine said “Ah yes, Anfield Plain – it is twinned with Sodom isn’t it?” Referring to the close proximity of the (by now defunct) steel mills which used to light up the sky above Consett. Anfield Plain school was originally set up for the Bevan Boys, conscripted to work down the local pit – that too defunct since Margaret Thatcher’s intervention in the early 80’s.

Bevin Boys

It struck me that all my science training and the success I had enjoyed as a researcher would be of little use if I did not learn to use language more effectively and, more importantly learn to listen to my students and their worries.

A couple of years later I was teaching science in my first job at Prudhoe High School. I had been given yet another bottom science set – a typical tactic of hardened heads of science; “Let’s see what the bastard can handle, I’m teaching the top set, fuck you” – policy. My lab (a shit hole) was open on both sides and used as the access corridor for the top floor of the school – so every Tom Dick or Cheryl could wander through. The class were watching me draw a big chalk diagram on the black board explaining the menstrual cycle (timely as one of them had ‘fallen pregnant’ – presumably by tripping over a sperm). As I was labelling it the Head of Physics wandered in:

“That is not how you spell Oestrus, Mr. Littlewood”

“Well Mr.Hanson, there is no penalty in the science curriculum for using the American spelling of the word as Estrus, which is easier to remember, and that is Dr. Littlewood to you”

Cheers from the class, scuttling away of intruder. We were not interrupted as much after that as word got round of my poisonous tongue.

I chose a single science curriculum for my class and they all passed – some with B’s – much to their great delight.

The Law of Convergence of Purpose states: Purpose will only converge when ideas and understanding become convergent – in other words use the right lingo buster.

Ask yourself this what right have you to teach? What gives you the right to take a child from a position of safety to a position of danger? Answer – the parents.

Never mind the curriculum, the poxy exam board, the idiot vote-catching politicians or your own expensive education, listen to the students and their guardians- they will give you the key.

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Imagination

13 Jan

Imagination

Princess Velvet Violet was a figment of my daughter’s fertile imagination back in the late 1980’s when we lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her mum made this lovely gown for her so that she could play at dressing up, augmenting the avid reading she used to do (generally under her bunk bed, with a glass of milk and some chocolate biscuits) through dramatic re-enactment.

She would spend hours buried in a novel, or story book developing her life long passion for literature.

On Saturdays, my daughter and I would stroll down to the Tyneside Cinema to watch a matinee with an ice lolly. The little Art Cinema would show runs of 1950 black and white films with Errol Flynn, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, transporting us both into the silver screen. It is one of my fondest memories of being a parent – sharing that magical medium with my daughter.

The greatest gift we can give our children is to take responsibility for freeing their minds so that they can develop their imagination. The greatest gift they give us is the courage they express as they show their individuality through the life they lead as adults.

No national curriculum, refurbished education policy, or political cant will achieve this: only the instinct, love, openness, and muddle of a parent will do. Politicians and teachers on the left and right would do well to remember the old riddle:

“What can you be given, but you can never give back?”
Answer = an Education.

Spirit

19 Jun

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Jazz is learning how to make a spatula on a shave horse using a draw knife. Her brother George is pictured here shaping a piece of Rowan with a carpenter’s axe for a spoon blank.

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These photographs were kindly sent to me by the mum of these lovely children – Lynn. In so doing she has given me an insight into how all of us learn.

At first I was struck by the look of concentrated delight on the little girl’s face as she let me help her pull the draw knife to shape her spatula – I was sat right behind her so I had no idea what thoughts were crossing her mind, or how she was taking the experience. Then I realised just how big I am in comparison to her, and this is echoed in the shot of George who is manfully struggling with an axe which I wield nearly every day (as a natural extension of my arm), on a chopping block that is clearly too big for him.

I could have chosen to miniaturise the experience for these youngsters, but I wanted to make my demonstration as real as possible. In so doing I hoped to be the bridge from the unfamiliar, and faintly scary, to the commonplace and useful: using real tools in the correct way to make really useful things.

I remember long ago an old teacher saying to me that Education was about taking a person from a position of safety to a position of ‘danger’ by helping them to conquer their fear. I would add to that, and say, anyone wanting to teach must find the source of their skill and generosity (for this is the true spirit of education) by acknowledging their true nature.

Teaching is a social enterprise which involves trust. Parents invest an immense amount of trust in teachers, which is a fact often overlooked by professionals in their hunt for better grades, greater performance, compliance with inspections and professional advancement. This trust is a gift which should be acknowledged.

We often forget that in the act of teaching we ourselves are being taught, Lynn, through her trust and generosity has showed me a reflection of myself I rarely get to see – true contentment.

Thank you!

x

H