A lead-pencil has a point, an argument may have a point, remarks may be pointed, and a man who wants to borrow five pounds from you only comes to the point when he asks you for the fiver. Lots of things have points: especially weapons. But where is the point to life? Where is the point to love? Where, if it comes to the point, is the point to a bunch of violets? There is no point. Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.
D. H. LAWRENCE (1885–1930)
More dogears from Smith
Real discipline, I would argue, is not always a matter of driving yourself on; real discipline is also knowing when to stop. This goes for all people in all jobs. Certainly, as a teacher you need to pace yourself, to sense when you’re losing your perspective, to recover as you go along, to have some fun and relaxation in the term-time, to think of other things, to enjoy yourself and not to fall into a puritanically self-obsessed rut. And for their part, the holidays are much more rewarding and memorable if there is some intellectual challenge and creative reflection. Wordsworth called this ‘a wise passiveness’. For a teacher and for a parent finding that delicate balance – or getting a life – is a tricky business.
Thoroughly enjoying Jonathan Smith’s “The Learning Game“. This anecdote is from his childhood. His Uncle Bert, a haemophiliac, always stayed with them.
“Every Christmas Day for many years we all gathered in his room for our dinner. After dinner, in my early childhood, we always played cards. I looked forward to this as much as to the turkey because I concentrated so fiercely and I wanted to win. The grown-ups gradually lost interest in the game and drank cider, with only half a mind on the cards. Taking full advantage of that, I usually ended up with the biggest pile of coins, and as the pile grew I pictured the fountain pen I was going to buy. A Platignum pen, or at least I think that’s what it was called. Anyway, I had seen them in the shops.
Uncle Bert, impressed by my judgement and my memory for the cards, egged me on. I massacred everyone, and ‘By God, I was rich. Rich!’ By bedtime I had scooped the pool. As well as my Christmas presents the Platignum pen was as good as in my hand.
Uncle Bert then reached up with his long fingers to unhook the Haemophiliac Society Charity stocking which he always kept hanging by his bed. He passed it round, encouraging each of us to contribute. It was a small see-through stocking, so there was no disguising the size of your gift. It may have been easy being mean with the collection bag in church, but not here in his bedroom. He watched me intently across the table and I knew he was watching me. One bushy eyebrow raised, a big grin and his few teeth showing, he handed the stocking to me. With a sinking heart I dropped coin after coin in.
‘It’s very good of you,’ he said, nodding each coin down, flicking his eyes and his head back to my pile, watching it diminish, ‘very good of you indeed.’
That is a teacher at work: mischief on the moral high ground, coercion, charity and comeuppance: sometimes he was pure Dickens.”
Perhaps it’s the bias of the medium, but spend much time online among teachery types and you come across a whole host of slightly hackneyed tropes. There is the “Shift Happens” video, Sir Ken Robinson, the “guide on the side vs sage on the stage” mantra, factory-model schooling is bunk, and long, well-meaning pieces about 21st century learning like this and this. None of it, I think, is particularly wholesome.
That’s not necessarily because it’s wrong. Yes, there is a lot of waffle around 21st century skills Harry Webb has pointed out, but there is also good sense there in places. Some of it I agree with, some not. But all of it I find disheartening and half-baked.
The OECD have a peculiarly dry piece about the shifts taking place in education and learning. Take this snippet, for example.
“Value is less and less created vertically through command and control-as in the classic “teacher instructs student” relationship-but horizontally, by whom you connect and work with, whether online or in person. In other words, we are seeing a shift from a world of stocks, where knowledge is stored up but not exploited, and so depreciates rapidly, to a world of flows, where knowledge is energised and enriched by the power of communication and constant collaboration. This will become the norm. Barriers will continue to fall as skilled people appreciate, and build on, different values, beliefs and cultures.”
Well, hooray for the focus on learning communities, but does anyone else find this sort of thing soulless, almost completely so? It is education as management speak, learning as an economic need.
Today, though, I came across a piece by Cyril Norwood.
The education that has so far been given to the people is at most partial and second best, and has little in common whether in range or in spirit with the universal education that may be. It was but the least possible with which the people would be contented and it was calculated to equip not citizens but servants… But education has to fit us for something … so incomparably precious that it will save a man from being a mere unit, a cipher: it will give him a life of his own, independent of the machine. And therefore at any cost our education must never sink to the level at which it will be merely vocational.“
This has crystallized matters for me and made me realise quite why I think 21st century education is half-baked. In all of its rhetoric, the focus is on the learner; that, I believe, is “a good thing”. 21st century learning focuses, though, on the learner almost solely as an economic unit, as “a cipher” that needs preparing for a job that doesn’t yet exist. In doing so, it ignores the learner as a human, as a person with hopes and aspirations beyond the machine. Education, as Sir Cyril says, should never merely be training.
Ed Catmull might be my new hero.
“Which is more valuable, good ideas or good people?
No matter whether I was talking to retired business executives or students, to high school principals or artists, when I asked for a show of hands, the audiences would be split 50–50. (Statisticians will tell you that when you get a perfect split like this, it doesn’t mean that half know the right answer—it means that they are all guessing, picking at random, as if flipping a coin.) People think so little about this that, in all these years, only one person in an audience has ever pointed out the false dichotomy.
To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.
In any given Pixar film, every line of dialogue, every beam of light or patch of shade, every sound effect is there because it contributes to the greater whole. In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, “A movie about talking toys—what a clever idea!” But a movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people. This is true of products in general; the iPhone, for example, is not a singular idea—there is a mindboggling depth to the hardware and software that supports it. Yet too often, we see a single object and think of it as an island that exists apart and unto itself.
To reiterate, it is the focus on people—their work habits, their talents, their values—that is absolutely central to any creative venture. “
I like this story to explain reasonable doubt. (From Sam Leith’s wonderful “You talkin to me?“)
“A man is in the dock, accused of murdering his wife. Although the body was never recovered, all the evidence points to the defendant: his car boot was filled with baling twine, bloodstained hammers, torn items of his wife’s clothing and suchlike. He had abundant motive – as the cashing in of a huge insurance policy taken out on the eve of his wife’s death demonstrates. And no sooner was his wife reported missing than he was holidaying in the Maldives with his pneumatically enhanced twenty-three-year-old mistress, his Facebook page filled with photographs of him in a pair of Speedos and a snorkel, grinning his murderous head off.
Nevertheless, his lawyer at trial pulls off a remarkable coup de théâtre.
‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,’ he says. ‘The prosecution has presented you with a mountain of evidence that tends to show that my client is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. But that evidence means nothing. For not only is my client not guilty of his wife’s murder, but no murder has in fact taken place. My client’s wife is alive and well. And I can prove it. It is now five minutes to midday. At precisely midday, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, those doors over there will open –’ he indicates the main doors into the courtroom with a flourishing sweep of the arm – ‘and my client’s wife will walk through them into the court.’
Gasps, naturally, go all round. For the next five minutes, the eyes of the presiding judge, the jury and every functionary of the court are glued to the main doors. Eventually, the heavy hands of the courtroom clock tick round to midday and a solemn bong is heard. The doors remain tight shut.
‘Well?’ says the judge. ‘Your promised miracle has not materialised.’
‘Indeed not,’ replies the defending barrister. ‘But every single one of you was watching those doors in the expectation that it would. In the absence of a body, that is surely an object demonstration that there remains a reasonable doubt over my client’s responsibility for his wife’s disappearance.’
‘Very good,’ says the judge. ‘However, I ask the jury to note that the only person in the courtroom not watching the doors was your client.’”
This often comes up in class when we’re talking about volume and area and Dr Who fans are always especially keen to know. My effort to explain the dimensions is to try to link it to English as follows:
One dimensional characters are just a line, a name or a signature. You don’t get much sense of the person.
Two dimensional characters are much better. You can get a 2D photo of these and imagine what they’re like. You can see expressions on their faces and decide whether they look mean, happy, funny or kind.
Three dimensional characters are better still. You can pinch them, punch them, first-of-the-month them and see how big their noses are if you walk around them.
All of these characters are still, though, Like Madame Tussaud’s figures, they don’t move. So better than all of these are four-dimensional characters. You can spend time with these characters, have midnight feasts with the,, go on holiday with them and when you throw a stinkbomb at them they will chase after you.
There is simply too much to think about. It is hopeless — too many kinds of special preparation are required. In electronics, in economics, in social analysis, in history, in psychology, in international politics, most of us are, given the oceanic proliferating complexity of things, paralyzed by the very suggestion that we assume responsibility for so much. This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive.
SAUL BELLOW, “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,”
This letter to the Times, dated 9th September 2013, seemed like a lovely analogy for many children’s experience of school.
In January 1943 the Italian mountaineeer Felice Bernuzzi and two companies escaped from the Allied PoW camp at Nanyski, Kenya, and made a valiant attempt to reach the summit of Mount Kenya, which was visible from the prison grounds. They made crampons and ice axes from steel salvaged from a scrapped car. Their map was a picture from the label from a jar of the Kenyan equivalent of Marmite. Regrettably their attempt failed but on their return they broke back into the prison. Being reticent Italians, they neglected to inform the authorities of their intention to leave the prison or of their return.