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Jul 292007

Just seen part of an interview with Bill Gates on News24 where Microsoft’s educational projects were being discussed, and the One Laptop Per Child project was brought up. Bill sort of avoided trying to talk about it by claiming that hardware costs will continue to come down and the real problem is about educational content.

It is true that hardware costs tend to come down … to a point where prices stay fairly static but specifications increase. He has also glossed over the fact that the OLPC laptop is semi-ruggedised with features specifically intended to help with its use as a learning tool rather than a working tool; including the special display which has a special low-power black and white mode intended for reading eBooks. Not something found in a typical laptop!

The other thing that was totally ignored is that the Sugar user interface (running on a stripped down RedHat) is designed to be easy to use for children rather than rely on some conventional approach to desktop computing. For instance there is an easy way to see your local “neighbourhood” (press F1) … the local mesh of internetworked OLPCs.

However Bill hit the nail on the head by bringing up the content issue. It is the real problem and in fact the OLPC project highlights this and has a prominent area on their Wiki to deal with content. Perhaps Bill should put his money where his mouth is and help fund the content projects … it may not help Microsoft directly (although given that the content is intended to be “open-source” there is no reason why a Microsoft operating system could not use it as well as the OLPC laptops) but it would help education.

Jul 222007

One thing on the news recently that caught my eye was a complaint about how modern history at school concentrates in detail on a few periods in history but presents no grand overview of events throughout history. Well assuming this is true (the media does not always get things right) then it’s a shame there is no ‘grand overview’. However the pundits commenting on this and suggesting that a grand overview should be part of the course did immediately jump on the old rote memorisation of dates bandwagon.

There’s a large number of people who seem to think you don’t know history if you cannot reel off a huge list of dates of significant events. Mistaking a list of dates for ‘history’ is one of the dumbest mistakes anyone can make … to everyone other than the dedicated rote learner, a history lesson of long lists of dates is excruciatingly boring, doesn’t teach you anything interesting, and has very little to do with history. Those who campaign for children to spend hours memorising dates are doing nothing more than trying to re-introduce a style of teaching that gave a big advantage to those with good memories (and I happen to be one) and a huge disadvantage to those whose memory was less capable but perhaps could understand history more.

There is very little need for people to memorise lists of dates when there are so many reference works available. Does someone who thinks the battle of Hastings was in 1066 have a greater understanding of history than someone who thinks the battle of Hastings happened sometime in the 11th century but also knows it occurred just after the battle of Stamford Bridge ?

Jun 302007

There are some knuckle-dragging Neanderthals (and I’m being insulting to Neanderthals making that comparison) who when they can stop drooling, parrot some nonsense about how they have come up with a “scientific” demonstration of how the evolution hypothesis is wrong and that the ages old creation myths given a quick paint of pseudo-science is a suitable explanation of how life came to be.

There are supposedly several arguments for “Intelligent Design” …

The first of course is the dumb religious prejudices of those who support “Intelligent Design” in that they cannot bring themselves to believe that the theory of evolution is compatible with a creator. This is principally a failure of imagination. Assuming you go with the Genesis creation myth, the dumber believe that God created the world exactly as depicted in Genesis. Just imagine for a minute, God trying to explain how he created the universe to a less educated man of pre-history … he would almost certainly resort to a simplistic explanation to avoid having to spend years at the task. If the Genesis myth is real, then it is most likely to be as described … a simplification suitable for man. There are many religious people who accept this and accept evolution as a reality.

The second argument is that evolution is an unproven theory over which there is considerable debate amongst the scientific community. Well the scientific community is wondering where all the argument is. As to whether evolution is unproven, well of course it is. There is supporting evidence, and nobody (with any credibility) has disproved evolution. It is the currently accepted theory as to how life came to be as is now.

There is also the complexity argument … those who argue for a “designer” claim that there are elements in life which are too complex to have evolved and this demonstrates that a designer was necessary. Not so … believing that a system is too complex to have evolved is again a failure of imagination. We may not understand how something could have evolved, but that does not mean it did not evolve.

Those in favour of “Intelligent Design” are anti-scientific bigots (it has been demonstrated again and again that there is no science in the “theory” of “Intelligent Design”) who want to turn back the clock to a time when anyone wondering about nature would be told “God made it that way” and to stop wasting their time. They want us to return to the dark ages.

Laugh at them. Spit on them. And ignore them.

And if you live in a country where they are corrupting the education system, fight that corruption!

Jan 182007

Everyone hates paying taxes. To be honest nothing is going to change that at all, but there are a few things that could be done to improve the situation. At present people want to pay as little tax as possible, whilst having well funded public services. Which is kind of foolish and impossible to achieve; of course there are ways in which to make public services more efficient but that is a whole other rant.

I should point out at this point, that I’m somewhat partial here as my own salary comes indirectly from taxation (and pretty stingy the tax-payers are too), but that is also a whole other rant.

The funny thing is that when you start working, you get a nasty shock when you get your first payslip about how much disappears in the direction of the government and nobody is there to explain what you get for your money. Why not include classes in school about what taxation gets us ?

All that taxation does provide us with useful services which include :-

  • A public health service that anyone can use at no cost or vastly reduced cost.
  • A police service intended to protect us from criminals.
  • Armed forced to defend us from external threats.
  • A social security system to provide us with a safety net in case we cannot earn an income.
  • An education system that educates everyone.

And I dare say I’ve left loads out … I nearly forgot education where I work! But we don’t get told about what we get for our money, we are expected to “just know”. Of course it some ways it is obvious, but why not make it clearer ?

In fact why not make the yearly pay slip (the P60) larger and include rough figures for how much we paid for each service ? If you get something that says you paid £10,000 in tax, of which £1,500 went to pay for Health, etc., we are more likely to be less critical of taxation.

Jan 092007

Recently a government minister caused a fuss in the press (they’re very excitable) by taking her child out of a state school and putting the child into a public school (a fee paying school for any US readers) because the child was dyslexic. The fuss of course is all about whether the needs of dyslexic children are adequately met in the state sector.

This is not about that at all.

Of course we should try to meet the needs of “special needs children” in state schools, but don’t all children have ‘special needs’ ? I don’t know how things are today, but when I was at school teachers would often concentrate on the poorest students and ignore the brightest students. Probably the thinking was that the brightest students could pick up the education they needed on their own, which is true to an extent. However I know a number of bright children (myself included) who were not pushed to study as hard as they should have been.

What often happened is that bright children found some or many lessons boring when they were stuck in a lesson proceeding at the speed of the slowest child in the lesson. Boredom as is well known is the enemy of learning. You could frequently find bright children obtaining poorer results at exams than they should be capable of doing well at.

Obviously I’m prejudiced towards brighter children, but the same applies to all children … all children are ‘special needs children’ in that they all should have individual attention in their education.

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